The urgent need to redefine the web, and its implications for democracy
One of the most important lessons of the post-Snowden era, aside from recognizing the importance and courage of his initiative via a Nobel Peace Prize, is the urgent need to completely overhaul the internet using protocols that would make anonymity a default setting.
This is a reasonable and practicable goal: an internet that has an ever-increasing number of connections now requires some of the characteristics of Tor, the onion network: each transmission is shared between the users within its reach at that moment. Each node must act as a kind of Tor server, helping to guarantee the anonymity of other users. This is the direction being taken by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF): a completely encrypted web where our connection will be transmitting when we are not using it, simply resending third-party packets via untraceable algorithms. In order to protect our anonymity, we all need to become a Tor server.
If you believe that the NSA’s mass surveillance activities do not affect you because you have nothing to hide, you are profoundly mistaken. The first rule of any democracy is that you can peacefully protest against what your government is doing: can you imagine a scenario whereby you are allowed to organize a protest, but only if you accept that your government can spy on you and know everything that you intend to do to stop it from carrying out its plans?
Worse still: if one of the defining characteristics of a democracy is the separation of powers, how can that separation mean anything is of the powers is constantly spying on the other two? For example, the interior ministry being able to monitor all conversations between judges to make sure they are on side, and to take action when they are in danger of acting against the government’s interests. Worse still is what happens in Spain, which is now a democracy in name only, and where the two major political parties truck and trade over the composition of the country’s main judicial institutions to make sure that their interests are represented. Add to this proposals to introduce laws allowing the authorities to imprison or impose heavy fines on anybody planning civil disobedience, however peaceful, and you have the perfect illustration of how a country’s democracy can be dismantled just four decades after emerging from dictatorship.
The main problem with cyber-surveillance isn’t just that it is an affront to human rights and a rewriting of the social contract, it is that it means we are all potentially guilty of something. It doesn’t matter how good a citizen you are: we all break the rules sometimes. As Cardinal Richelieu famously commented:
“Give me six lines written by the most honest of men, and I will find something in them to have him hanged.”
This isn’t about whether you have done anything bad, but the ability of the watchers to make it appear that you have. There are so many laws, so many rules, so many norms, that it is almost always possible to discover some breach of them. The incentive to do this is all the greater in the case of people who raise too many questions, who get in the way, or who simply exercise their legitimate right to not agree with everything their government does and who wants to try to change things.
This is no longer simply about the internet. We are talking about the quality of democracy in the world, and about the ability of societies to organize themselves based on principles of justice and equality. An internet that is permanently under surveillance is unacceptable for any right-thinking person, raising the specter of a totalitarian state. It isn’t security and the threat of terrorism that is at stake here: the vast majority of “bad guys” use other means of communication when they know that they are being monitored, or simply use encryption. Democracy in the developed world, something that we have always taken for granted, has now been subverted via control of the internet through the use of tools that we ourselves have created.
If you think that the NSA’s surveillance activities do not affect you, because it is not interested in spying on what you do, then be ready when nobody steps forward to defend you when you, for whatever reason, become the spied upon. Do not underestimate the capacity of your government to create absurd laws that you might want to oppose: but when you do so, you will become an object of surveillance.
When governments collect, store, and process information they do so to combat activism, and protecting activism is a fundamental task within a democracy, as is protecting those who protest against the misuse of the law by governments. The NSA’s surveillance is one of the defining characteristics of a police state. Just because a government does something, doesn’t necessarily make it legal.
Do you really think that we lose our rights when we allow technology companies to watch us and analyze our movements? You are wrong if you do. In the first place, because tech companies cannot sanction you, fine you, or arrest you.
Secondly, because they are motivated by business interests: nobody would buy the products of a company that ruins people’s lives or exposes them to sanctions of any kind. These companies are trying to adapt their advertising to make it more effective, so that it responds better to what interests you, or to improve your experience of their product, not to incriminate or persecute you. Thirdly, it is governments who threaten these companies, making them accomplices and obliging them to hand over information about their users, subverting laws that were not created for this purpose and that should not be used without adequate judicial supervision (adequate in this case meaning “by independent judges”, and not on the basis of carpet legislation).
Edward Snowden has shown that all these threats to democracy are being carried out in absolute secrecy, on the basis of new interpretations of laws that our theoretical representatives voted for. No, laws cannot be kept secret from the electorate, because the concept itself is totally absurd and unsustainable. The scenario we now face if we do not change things is a terrifying one as regards civil liberties. And to a large degree, depends on how the architecture of the internet evolves, and the technical characteristics of the web as an indispensible element to uphold democracy. Have you ever stopped to think about the importance of that connection?