The Big Internet Future

The Big Internet Future

Article from Issue 156/2013

We’re all working on building the big Internet future – where we can dream big dreams and be more than we can be; where we all know each other and free ideas flow like champagne, and we have powers that an earlier generation would have thought were magic. We turn our wide, hungry, excited eyes to the future. We are the future. We dream, and we are struck with awe at the future we are building…

The Big Internet Future

Dear Linux Pro Reader,

We're all working on building the big Internet future – where we can dream big dreams and be more than we can be; where we all know each other and free ideas flow like champagne, and we have powers that an earlier generation would have thought were magic. We turn our wide, hungry, excited eyes to the future. We are the future. We dream, and we are struck with awe at the future we are building…

If you live inside the high tech arena, you probably hear some form of this speech every day: in advertisements, in commentaries, in books, in press conferences, at academic conferences, in grant proposals. That is the collective quest we are on: building the big Internet future. But what is this future? How do we know what it looks like when it hasn't happened yet? Is this future extrapolated from the present in some way that would pass scientific muster? Or is this someone's engineered vision that just gets put inside our heads through the collective interest of government, business, and academia?

We are taught that imagining the future makes us creative and adventurous. We are explorers. To complete the lesson, we are even given the future that we can be creative imagining – the moving target of our collective high-tech vision: Right now, it has to do with the wonder of the cloud, the power of social networking, and the beauty of personal gadgets that were once phones and are becoming articles of clothing. That's where we're all going, right?

Like most people, I was shocked to learn of the spying and privacy violations associated with the US government's PRISM project. What shocks me just as much, or perhaps more, is the fact that we seem to think we can design our way through the revelations about the PRISM project without ever challenging the tidy vision of our collective Internet future. Very few seem to be asking whether the ease with which the government tainted and subverted our Internet vision might be an indication that the vision itself is fundamentally unsound. We discuss our legal strategies, and technical strategies, for how to stop the government from spying on the beautiful Internet as we imagine it, but does anybody really have an answer?

Don't get me wrong. I'm not trying to let the US government off the hook. To the extent that laws were broken, perpetrators should be arrested and prosecuted. To the extent that laws don't exist (which is more to the point), representatives should be held accountable and voted out if they don't act decisively to enact credible privacy standards. But even after saying that, I'm still a little amazed that everyone seems to think we just need to get the government yanked around where we want them to be, then we can go on building this glorious vision of a world where our entire life story (what we want, what we think, who we know) exists in electronic form, floating on a massive global network no one owns or controls, and the whole thing will add up to something we will recognize as old-school reverence for the concept of privacy.

One thing the PRISM affair has taught us is that, even with the benefit of cryptography, stopping government espionage is a high-level skill that is difficult to address alone, except by making it a priority in the voting booth. But the deterioration of our privacy has been a problem since long before PRISM. We express surprise that the government had secret deals to obtain personal data from Yahoo! and Facebook, but we shy from the big question of why Yahoo! and Facebook built whole business models around mining personal data in the first place.

When FOSS icon Pamela Jones shut down the Groklaw blog because of fears she could not protect the anonymity of her sources, she introduced a stark realism rarely seen in the high tech space when she said, "My personal decision is to get off the Internet to the degree that it is possible." [1] Our range of options varies depending on our social milieu and the demands of our professions. We can't all be as austere as Pamela Jones, but we can still play a role in defining the future of the Internet by exercising choice. Maybe the next time you sign up for an Internet service, you read the license carefully, and if you don't like the terms, you click "Decline" and tell the company why. Maybe you tell your friends you can't email them on their Gmail account, because the owners of Gmail have stated that mailing to a Gmail address offers "no legitimate expectation of privacy"? [2] Maybe you choose the smartphone with the best security instead of the one with the best camera.

The big Internet future is not downloaded to us by marketers and commentators: We have the power to shape it – by electing officials who are paying attention and by paying attention ourselves when we make consumer choices. Don't let anyone lull you into forgetting: "No" is a perfectly valid choice.

Joe Casad, Editor in Chief

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