Abuse of power comes as no surprise

Why both backdoors and Free Basics should give you pause

This week, Apple refused to comply with a federal court order to help the FBI unlock the iPhone of a San Bernardino shooter.

Apple’s fear is that working with the FBI in this case would set a precedent for other, more ambiguous reasons to bypass security, such as surveillance or tracking. (This is the broader concern about so-called “security backdoors”.)

An open letter posted on their website explained:

For many years, we have used encryption to protect our customers’ personal data….We have even put that data out of our own reach, because we believe the contents of your iPhone are none of our business.
We are challenging the FBI’s demands with the deepest respect for American democracy and a love of our country. We believe it would be in the best interest of everyone to step back and consider the implications.
While we believe the FBI’s intentions are good, it would be wrong for the government to force us to build a backdoor into our products.

I felt thrilled and strangely proud when I read Apple’s stance. It seems many of my tech peers shared my reaction. But I couldn’t help compare it to another contentious issue of late: Free Basics.

Free Basics is a Facebook app that provides free Internet access to emerging markets. It does not provide full Internet access, however, but rather a curated suite of services (including Facebook).

India decided to ban Free Basics earlier this month, prompting anger and confusion from Silicon Valley. People complained that net neutrality was being taken too far, hurting those who don’t have access at all. Others, including Mark Zuckerberg, were baffled that providing free Internet could possibly be considered a bad thing.

From what I can tell, people who support one issue but not the other do so because they fundamentally distrust either the government or the private sector:

  • If you are pro-Free Basics but anti-backdoor, you believe companies have authority.
  • If you are pro-backdoor but anti-Free Basics, you think government has authority.

But humans are humans, whether they work for the government or for a large tech company.

The private and public sector deserve equal scrutiny. I side with Apple in the San Bernardino case, but I certainly don’t side with them on other governance issues. Not because I distrust Apple, but because I believe all power is subject to human error.

To support Free Basics but oppose backdoors would be to commit the same fallacy as our predecessors. We are still putting faith in a benevolent dictator (companies) instead of in ourselves.

In past decades, we saw government as a steward of our best interests, enforced by checks and balances. But the government was never objective or neutral. (We put the Three-Fifths Compromise into the U.S. Constitution, for goodness’ sakes.) Governments are made of people, and people are subject to the same cultural norms, influences and temptations as the rest of us.

As we reimagine government in a world driven by technology, let’s not accidentally replace one benevolent dictator with another. Our goal should be to create a system of checks and balances that apply to everyone.

(The title of this post comes from artist Jenny Holzer, which rings in my head every so often.)

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