Edward Snowden’s TED Talk (embedded below) is compelling viewing, not least because the man himself appears by telepresence robot (it’s like something out of The Jetsons).
If he is all he appears to be, then Snowden is a remarkable individual. Revealing details of the NSA’s secretive operations has almost certainly cost him any chance of living a normal life as well as a large degree of personal freedom, and that’s a hell of a price to pay. There are many thousands of individuals around the world working for various government surveillance agencies who are probably in a position to do the same as Snowden, but every single one has chosen not to do so. This is a measure of how exceptional Snowden is. Thank goodness for aberrations, for deviations from the norm. They are an evolutionary mechanism and humanity progresses in response to the acts of outliers like Snowden. What will the world’s response be to its new understanding of how pervasive and invasive government surveillance already is? I think in general it will raise the level of distrust towards government amongst younger generations who, like Snowden, have grown up with the Internet. That cannot be a bad thing. Snowden himself said that he hoped that anyone doing business online would start to offer their customers Secure Socket Layers (SSL encryption) by default in order to make it much more difficult (or at least more labour intensive) for government agencies like the NSA to see (and record) what you’re buying/reading/saying/writing.
The biggest thing that an Internet company in America can do today, right now, without consulting with lawyers, to protect the rights of users worldwide, is to enable SSL web encryption on every page you visit. The reason this matters is today, if you go to look at a copy of “1984” on Amazon.com, the NSA can see a record of that, the Russian intelligence service can see a record of that, the Chinese service can see a record of that, the French service, the German service, the services of Andorra. They can all see it because it’s unencrypted. The world’s library is Amazon.com, but not only do they not support encryption by default, you cannot choose to use encryption when browsing through books. This is something that we need to change, not just for Amazon, I don’t mean to single them out, but they’re a great example. All companies need to move to an encrypted browsing habit by default for all users who haven’t taken any action or picked any special methods on their own. That’ll increase the privacy and the rights that people enjoy worldwide.
I think this will happen. Most likely the major web and computer companies will lead the way on this and eventually it will become the norm for all web commerce. Using SSL does increase the cost of doing business online at the moment as well as impact performance a touch, but no doubt much greater demand for encryption standards will drive costs down and lead to greater efficiency and quality in the future. On the consumer side, a burgeoning market in personal Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) and other in-browser privacy tools means individuals can already significantly reduce the visibility of their digital footprints.
It’s put to Snowden by his interviewer that: “You’re part of a generation that grew up with the Internet, and it seems as if you become offended at almost a visceral level when you see something done that you think will harm the Internet. Is there some truth to that?”
Snowden’s response is an interesting one:
It is. I think it’s very true. This is not a left or right issue. Our basic freedoms, and when I say our, I don’t just mean Americans, I mean people around the world, it’s not a partisan issue. These are things that all people believe, and it’s up to all of us to protect them, and to people who have seen and enjoyed free and open Internet, it’s up to us to preserve that liberty for the next generation to enjoy, and if we don’t change things, if we don’t stand up to make the changes we need to do to keep the Internet safe,not just for us but for everyone, we’re going to lose that, and that would be a tremendous loss, not just for us, but for the world.
I think “offended at almost a visceral level” is another way of saying that Snowden felt morally outraged, so much so that it prompted him to perform a hugely courageous act; one that has already cost him a great deal – and may still cost him his life.
Hardly anyone is morally outraged at the slow and steady erosion of our physical liberty at the hands of government in society today, but it does seem that people are more inclined to get personally offended (and involved in pushing back) when our digital liberty is compromised or threatened. Maybe this is because those of us who have grown up with the Internet have had the privilege of experiencing this interconnected network of computers swiftly become infinitely more than the sum of its parts. We’ve seen the web become everything it promised to be and countless things we never imagined it could be right before our eyes in just a couple of decades. Unlike the real world where we’ve never known any better than the ‘freedom’ granted to us by our governments, in the digital realm we’ve lived the benefits and felt the thrill of pure, natural liberty. We live in total freedom on the Internet. It is anarchy and we love it. It has transformed our lives in countless ways and we’ve been rocketed into a new age of information and communication as a result.
Perhaps the thought of having this beautiful electric web of spontaneous order made of cables and computers, but built on trust and peaceful exchange undermined, corrupted, or degraded in any way by secretive government agencies offends us deeply. Maybe, like Snowden, we too feel an instinctive urge to protect this thing of beauty. I think we do. And I also think that it is no surprise that we do because, fundamentally, the Internet is freedom. The Internet is liberty, it is a world of liberty in itself. It is a microcosm of and a blueprint for the state-less society, which must be our future if humanity is to progress and not fall into a new dark age. The Internet is ‘living’ proof that anarchy does not equal chaos but in fact creates prosperity and progress; it is proof that complete freedom for billions of individuals to act as they wish does not result in a world of monopolies or tyrannies, but a world of cooperation, exchange, and negotiation. A truly civilised and peaceful society.
Novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand once wrote: “Civilization is the progress toward a society of privacy. The savage’s whole existence is public, ruled by the laws of his tribe. Civilization is the process of setting man free from men.”
Snowden too spoke of how privacy is necessary for society.
We have a right to privacy. We require warrants to be based on probable cause or some kind of individualized suspicion because we recognize that trusting anybody, any government authority, with the entirety of human communications in secret and without oversight is simply too great a temptation to be ignored.
Here he makes a good point about power (i.e. of the government kind). Power and people don’t mix. All power corrupts and eventually all powers will be abused and exploited to the fullest extent by individuals in positions to do so. It’s hopelessly unrealistic to expect power over the entirety of human communications not to be abused, even if it wasn’t in secret and had plenty of oversight.
Collection information about people’s online activities without their explicit permission is not an act of violence, but it is an initiation of force and therefore a violation of the non-aggression principle. The NSA argues that it is in everyone’s interest for the NSA to spy on them, but if that were true, then there would be no need for secrecy. Doing it covertly allows them to avoid being disagreed with, it gives the subjects (victims) no chance to say no – and that’s the very definition of an initiation of force. Of course, if they gave everyone the chance to say no to being spied on, then most or too many people probably would say no, and the object of the exercise would be defeated. Thus they only way the NSA can execute its various surveillance projects is by deliberately not giving people the choice to participate or not. It’s a simple truth that if your idea has to be forced on people, then your idea has no value to those people. But the NSA chooses to ignore such truths.
The Internet is the first and, perhaps, last bastion of true liberty in the post-industrial revolution era. Let us answer Snowden’s rallying cry, surround it and protect it by supporting in every way we can all the talented individuals out there who are outsmarting, outmaneuvering and confounding government surveillance agencies every day with innovations and intelligence; and will continue to do so as long as we peacefully exchange with them.
We must resist the temptation of entrusting governments to protect the virtue of the Internet because doing so will almost certainly lead to it becoming an ossified lump of laws, regulations and corruption – or worse still a tool of omnipresent government oppression. Power over it must remain highly decentralised and in the hands of the billions of individuals whose thoughts, feelings and imagination breathe life into it. Nothing else will do.
Liberty and the Internet are one and the same. It’s through the Internet that younger generations see, feel and live the infinite value of liberty. In the real world many of them struggle to see or get a fix on the value of liberty through the fog and constant white noise of government propaganda, the media, and the alluring rhetoric of politicians. On the Internet, liberty is a bell that rings true and clear. It’s unmistakable and it’s ours. Thus the Internet illuminates a path to progress for all humanity. But if we let it get too dark we might lose our way. All of us who stand in the light of liberty alongside Edward Snowden must outshine and outwit those government types who believe more darkness will bring a brighter future. We can and we will.