Is The Internet Good or Bad? Yes.

It’s time to rethink our nightmares about surveillance.

Matter
Matter
Published in
23 min readFeb 12, 2014

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TEAR GAS IS A GOOD TEACHER. It taught me that what they say is true: Awful conditions can bring out the best in people. It taught me that one can get used to almost anything, including a sensation of choking, and of impending death. It taught me to savor the simple pleasure of fresh air.

Tear gas even taught me something about a subject I have studied for many years as an academic: social media. It was June 2013 and I was in the middle of the Gezi Park protests in Istanbul. After each volley of tear gas, protesters would pull out their phones and turn to social media to find out what was happening, or to report events themselves. Twitter had become the capillary structure of a movement without visible leaders, without institutional structure. Without even a name.

I was there to study the upheaval, this digital-era rebellion. But my mind kept wandering. Just a few days earlier, the first of Edward Snowden’s leaks had ricocheted around the world. We would soon learn a lot about the capabilities of the National Security Agency: that it can access data from the likes of Skype and Facebook; tap undersea cables and circumvent industry-agreed cryptography standards; hack into the connections that link giant data warehouses run by Google and Yahoo. And the agency, we would discover, used secret court orders to get the cooperation it required from industry giants—and to silence industry rebels.

This was not altogether a surprise; after all, the NSA’s mission includes the collection of “signals intelligence.” But the scale of the surveillance was shocking. And it was only possible because Internet and telecommunication companies have for years been amassing as much data as they can on their customers. Snowden didn’t just reveal specifics of what the NSA is doing—he also exposed an alliance of surveillance made up of governments and Internet corporations.

This alliance can monitor almost every click, and often does. (In fact, non-clicks are also scrutinized: Facebook tracks status updates that people start and then delete, so as to better understand why they decide not to post.) These clicks are increasingly linked to records of our offline lives. Commercial voter databases boast of…

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