Just ahead of the 25th anniversary of the World Wide Web, Edward Snowden has sent what he hopes will be a strong message to the powers that control the internet in a video link streamed live to South by Southwest event in Austin, Texas.
Snowden pitched his appearance as a call to arms. The NSA is "setting fire to the future of the internet" and those who understand how the nuts and bolts of the web work must step up to be our firemen.
His words have resonated with a lot of angry people. Revelations about the NSA's Prism project have confirmed many people's worst fears. The internet grew up in a culture of anti-authoritarianism, bottom up consensus and the rule of standards but it has been co-opted by powerful states that undermine those values and challenge our human right to private communications.
We might have expected this type of behaviour from authoritarian regimes but there was an assumption that in liberal states, where the promotion of human rights online has been championed, we wouldn't be subjected to this kind of invasion of our privacy. But the recent revelations that GCHQ was storing images from Yahoo chat (many of which were sexually explicit) put paid to the notion that even the most private online interactions can be secured.
The extent to which the NSA and GCHQ have been monitoring not only suspected wrongdoers but ordinary citizens exposes some deep concerns about the accountability of intelligence organisations – a frustration that led Edward Snowden to leave his comfortable life as a security contractor and reveal what had been happening last year.
Where do we go from here?
At SXSW, Snowden urged those who build websites and develop the services on which we rely to take action. For him, these are the people best placed to enhance our privacy. He said they should develop more effective encryption and encourage the companies they work for to make it readily available to the average user. Using an anonymising tool like The Onion Router (TOR) is fine for those determined to protect their online profile, for example, but it is beyond the capacity or inclination of many average users. This is where innovation from the private sector can help, just like Snowden proposes.
We shouldn't be surprised to hear an engineer proposing technological solutions to what are essentially political problems. His response is common and rational. But it ultimately ignores the ambivalence most people feel about whether it should be the job of private companies or states to protect our civil liberties online.
Clearly, most people have not been communicating online in the understanding that quite so much of their data has been retained and stored by Western governments. We do give it away for free to tech companies like Google and Facebook though, and perhaps that's why Snowden thinks we are more comfortable handing them more responsibility.
This of course, happens in a framework of commercial exchange. In return for the search engines and social networking tools we use every day, our personal data becomes a currency which is sold on to allow for targeted advertising. We are all complicit in this arrangement but few of us really understand what happens to our data and who has access to it. While these companies watch us, who is watching them?
Perhaps Snowden is hoping an organisation like the Global Network Initiative is will step in to save us. This industry led organisation comprised of a number of the information giants – Google, Yahoo, Facebook – has developed standards and practices for how companies should deal with requests by governments to hand over data.
Presumably, the GNI was a response to requests made in response to demands for information from governments in places like China and the Middle East. But where was the GNI when PRISM was on the prowl?
None of this will sit well with citizens if Snowden wants us to rely on the technical community to secure our privacy. How we want the internet to be governed over the next 25 years and beyond is a political question. It will take much more engagement with processes that can offer accountability and representation. It's unlikely that leaving it to the market is a long term solution.
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