When the public Internet first came into existence 20 years years ago, few Internet users at the time could have ever guessed that it would evolve into its current state. These early Internet users surfed an Internet, that at the time, must have seemed like an online Eden, or as if a new and virtually endless frontier had just opened its borders–but these views of the Internet are seldom discussed in the contemporary world.
So what has become of this once beloved Internet that seemed to filled with endless possibilities? There was a coup and the lowly end-user lost.
The modern Internet has become a place for advertisers and companies to legally track users, and a place where the government can locate terrorists, criminals and anyone else who’s an enemy of the state. But when did this surveillance begin? And how will politics further affect Internet policy?
Well for starters, this political and economical surveillance isn’t always directly due to governmental policy, but is often a result of the platform that a given Internet site is founded upon.
Jacob Appelbaum, one of the main minds behind Tor (anonymity network) and the “Cypherpunk” activist group, sheds light on this structural problem of the Web. One of Applbaum’s main points, explained in the above video, is that “the architecture is the truth.” Appelbaum’s argument here is that the “architecture” of whatever it may be (government, financial systems or even the Internet) is set up through a certain structure and that structure is canon.
Likewise, Internet sites are subject to this same “truth” that Appelbaum is talking about. Just like your favorite sport or the government you adhere to, websites are founded on basic pillars, or laws, which essentially set the boundaries for the site. Although Internet sites are rarely created to harm users in any way, the pillars upon which sites are built upon usually don’t account for those who seek to jeopardize users of the site.
An example of how users are subject to the “architecture” can be seen through various forms of Internet sites and online games. But the ones responsible for tainting the Internet, and the individuals who use it, are not always hackers and spammers. In some rare cases governmental organizations are the ones responsible for violating websites and their users.
Congress is still deadlocked over the Bush Administration’s efforts to listen in to phone calls and read emails without search warrants. The sticking point is whether or not to allow private citizens to sue telecom conglomerates, the huge firms that provide most of us with phone and internet service – and helped the Administration spy on us. Now, the Administration wants to try to spy on Americans in another way.
In the early 2000s, users of sites like SecondLife and massive multi-player online games (MMOs) like World of Warcraft were targets of government surveillance, even though most users didn’t even understand that it was a possibility. The government would secretly monitor users’ content on these social sites, claiming that it was to assist the global “war on terror.” Federal intelligence agencies wanted to monitor these online worlds by studying their social, behavioral and cultural norms, and then attempt to create a system that could detect suspicious behavior. Like listening to people’s phone conversations and reading their email messages, spying on their activities on social MMO sites is just as much an infringement of personal rights.
But governmental surveillance and monitoring in the United States has reached its next, and most pertinent speed bump regarding Internet privacy of users. Policy makers are now attempting to pass the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Privacy Act (CISPA), which if passed, will allow sharing of Internet traffic information between the U.S. government and technology and manufacturing companies. In other words: it would be another major setback to ensuring Internet users’ rights.
If CISPA were to pass, then the potential for more instances like the spying of MMOs would increase monumentally. Civil rights and activist groups have already had a tough time fighting for the rights and privacy of Internet users, so if CISPA were to pass then these groups may no longer stand a chance in the fight for privacy on the Web.