Is Edward Snowden Seriously About To F*** Up My Netflix?
Just call me the old man on the mountain chiseling away on my stone tablets, rambling about the end of days. See, I’ve never been one for conspiracy theories. I enjoy the occasional documentary about the hidden evils of GMO’s or perusing the Skull and Bones Wikipedia page, but I have an awfully hard time believing in anything labeled as an “inside job.” Quite frankly, in the digital age, I think it would be damn near impossible for the Illuminati (if they exist) to keep their secrets hidden. Perhaps that’s why I feel so strange writing this piece and admitting that in the past week I’ve become a total truther. What’s worse is that I’ve relentlessly Google searched this topic and can find very little chatter about it, which only makes me think I’m even more right. Am I crazy? Or is Edward Snowden about to ruin everything I love about the internet?
As of this writing, the senate has allowed key spy provisions of the Patriot Act to expire. Thanks in part to sort-of-Republican, presidential hopeful, Dr. Rand Paul, the senate voted 77 to 17 to shift telephone records from the government back to phone companies. To be explicitly clear, this article and theory has no political bias. In fact, I doubt any politician who voted for or publicly supported this move, has connected the dots like I have. Again keep in mind, I might be Mel Gibson in “Conspirarcy Theory” level crazy right now, or just… regular Mel Gibson level crazy too. The expired provisions mainly affect phone usage, though the expectation is that the Patriot Act will soon be gone altogether with the only real support being touted by the NSA itself. It seems that the House of Representatives and the Senate see their duty to halt data collection as an absolute must should they seek reelection. Since Edward Snowden’s historic revelations have come to light, it is politically and socially fashionable to condemn federal data collection as overreach. Seems like a fender bender compared to newly announced, Republican presidential candidate, Lindsey Graham’s declaration that if you’re suspected of supporting Al Qaeda, he won’t be calling a judge, but instead will be “calling a drone to kill you.” Whoops, my bad, I forgot I wasn’t going to get political.
In defense of the Patriot Act and their apparent spying techniques, the NSA has claimed time and again that data collection is imperative in monitoring, apprehending, and stopping would be terrorists. Former Clinton advisor and terrorism scholar Jessica Stern, who is purported to be “the best known American among [Pakistani] jihadis,” has noted that Twitter’s greatest benefit; the ability to find people with similar interests, has also served as one of ISIS’ most successful tools in recruiting foreign supporters. Federal investigations and ultimately NSA victories orchestrated by the FBI have been reliant on monitoring telecommunication chatter in order to identify terrorism suspects. Therefore, data collection is obviously a crutch the government has leaned on in “the War on Terror,” and here’s where I start to get worried about my Netflix.
An open internet- one in which users have unlimited access to information, services, and the exchange of ideas, is the single most necessary component of data exchange, and the monitoring of that data as a result. Whether data pertains to Tweeting about Jihad or streaming last night’s episode of Modern Family, unobstructed internet usage is the most vital part of the equation. As the FCC’s February vote to uphold an open internet policy loomed, I found myself posting links on Facebook for my friends to find the easiest way to reach their elected officials and urge them to protect the free exchange of information. The way I see it is, should we lose our right to a free and open internet, it will be our generation’s greatest mistake. Forget unjustified wars, it would be our single, greatest self-imposed failure to our democracy if we let net neutrality slip away. It seems abhorrent that we would raise our children in a world where they couldn’t instantly Google the answer to any question posed to them, but there are very powerful lobbyists on behalf of cable corporations (internet providers) who do, in fact, want to make that process much more difficult for the average user. In order to win back their leaking profits, high-level cable executives dream of packaging your internet services like TV bundles. I assume it’s as Disney villain-esque as it sounds… Somewhere in a dimly lit office, on the highest floor, of the tallest building, a cable executive in a suit drags his fingertips over a globe, laughing manically, and plotting his scheme- thunder clashes outside the window. Sure, you’ll be able to pay $30 a month for basic internet, but if you want Facebook and Twitter, that will be an extra $10. Buzzfeed and YouTube? Well, that’s video so it’ll be another $20. And don’t think they’ll have forgiven the sins you began committing in the late 2000s, because every second you spent streaming video content instead of watching your TV set will equal an extra penny they charge you for your beloved Netflix and Hulu Plus subscriptions. Now this isn’t confirmed, but many speculate this is how it will go if the FCC can’t protect and ultimately uphold their commitment to net neutrality. Luckily, in February of this year, the FCC did uphold those policies so we’re good… right?
The FCC decision was a victory over big cable and was a clear cause for celebration. #SaveTheInternet supporters rejoiced across social media, that our pleas had been heard and our grassroots effort had saved the day. Fast forward to today’s Patriot Act debate, and I can’t ignore this anxious feeling I’m getting. There’s a marriage of logic here that no one is debating. When lobbyists… well, lobby, they usually line the pockets of policy makers and impose their will. We know this. Big cable has big money. We know this too. The FCC- a federal organization- imposes the will of the government, but government regulation has never been exempt from interference on behalf of major corporations a’la big oil. So, how did our victory come so easily? Am I paranoid for beginning to think that maybe it was too easy? Is it possible that a free and open internet was more appealing than any alternative, to a government so focused and so vehemently obsessed with domestic security and color coding our threat levels for the past 14 years, that big cable, with their falling profit margins, could not pay up enough cash to make it worth the risk? As the CIA and NSA embedded themselves on the Hill and dominated policy-making landscapes over the past decade, with skyrocketing budgets and defense spending, could they have been the voice in the federal ear denying cable’s bankrolling? The voice of… [gulp] reason?
If there was no “free internet,” and if download speeds stalled, and if communication between users directly correlated to the fees they agreed to pay providers each month, what good would that be to the NSA and their data collection machine? If information exchange became so convoluted that the primary users who could afford the service were upper-middle class, iObsessed patrons swallowing Drake’s newest album on iTunes and posting #TBT photos from high school prom, how could the NSA justify building and maintaining a billion dollar data collection system they’ve put in place to monitor the vast expanse of digital culture?
If the NSA had a vested interest in protecting the open internet, what happens to data exchange when they’re removed from the equation? And, if they’re unable to monitor the exchange of digital data, does that make “the internet” the US government’s enemy? Would the NSA, or the greater federal government have any reason to keep protecting net neutrality? The Patriot Act may have been the dented, federal shield that made the free exchange of digital content more vital than lobbyist incentives. Is it possible that as with most historic policies, while we strip away federal overreach, we simultaneously pave a path of golden bricks for privatized, big cable to follow? Shhh. If you listen closely, you can hear them clicking their heels. Okay, maybe I am crazy. Clutch your precious subscription to HBO Now a little tighter tonight. Winter is coming.
@jameslchapman is a TV producer who likes talking about media, politics, and technology.