War for the Web
09 07.13

Power Corrupts: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and Privacy

Edward Snowden, Bradley Manning, Julian Assange, CIA, NSA, FBI. David and Goliath? Heroes and Tyrants? These situations are full of shades of gray. There is one thing transparently black and white, however; the Internet has placed the power of a surveillance state, and by extension the tools for tyranny, in government and corporate hands. We now know, definitively, that the NSA colludes with Verizon, AT&T and others to collect information about Americans, ostensibly to prevent terrorist attacks.

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

-Lord Acton, 1887

We may trust the leadership we have now, but by enabling these systems with so little oversight, we are forced to trust not only today’s leadership, but every subsequent leader and administration that we have in this nation. This is not the system of checks and balances that this country was founded upon and sets an incredibly dangerous precedent.

The Internet has served as an enabler for all this surveillance. Few of us consider our privacy when we send an email or a message on Facebook or LinkedIn, but the fact is almost no consumer protections exist to ensure that our private messages are actually private. But it was not always this way and it does not have to be this way.

In 1996 Congress passed the Telecommunications Act; it defines several tiers of regulation, with titles attached. Title 1 is information service, which has almost no consumer protections. Title 2 is telecommunications service, which actually has many consumer protections against governmental and corporate intrusion. There are laws against wiretapping without a warrant, there are laws against companies listening in and using information for any purpose whatsoever. It also ensured common carriage, published rate schedules and consistent billing practices that allowed independent ISPs to offer Internet service to consumers over telephone company lines.

“The laws on this go back to freight transportation, that’s why they call them carriers, because they’re carrying stuff. Law on that is that you were a train that has a monopoly in a certain area, you can’t favor some people over others. You’ve got to have a price sheet and you’ve got to charge everybody the same price. This was the environment with the phone companies when we started.”

-Jim Pickrell, Founder and CEO of Brand X Internet Service, 2013 interview with War for the Web

These laws and rules applied to the Internet service when it was conducted over phone lines until roughly 2002. The year 2002 brought about a lot of changes for the Internet; we started to see more wholesale adoption of cable broadband services. Cable broadband never had the same telecommunications protections that applied to dial-up and DSL Internet service because it was always considered a Title 1, or information service. The FCC had an opportunity to reclassify Cable broadband a telecommunications service in 2003 but instead went in the opposite direction, and reclassified all Internet service, whether over Cable or Telephone lines as Information service.

“What they did is they said hey, let’s call the Internet, let’s say that’s not a telecommunications service. They decided to reformat the English language [to change] the requirements of the Telecommunications Act.”

-Jim Pickrell, Founder and CEO of Brand X Internet Service, 2013 interview with War for the Web

By making this decision, the FCC totally changed the Internet landscape with consequences ranging far beyond privacy and personal freedoms. The decision allowed telephone companies to close their facilities to competitors.  Singlehandedly, the FCC wiped out an entire competitive industry, installed regional monopoly Internet service providers and destroyed any semblance of consumer privacy protections.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. The FCC can change it back anytime they want. All they have to do is reclassify Internet as a telecommunications service. Sure, it would be unpopular with big telecom companies. Verizon and AT&T would probably sue, along with Comcast and Time Warner, but the same principle that allowed the FCC to make this decision the first time would allow them to make it again.

The Internet is simply a tool, and so whether it is used for ill or for good rests completely in our hands. War for the Web had the good fortune of sitting down with Aaron Swartz last summer to discuss these issues, his words illustrate the point precisely:

“There’s sort of these two polarizing perspectives right? Everything is great; the Internet has created all this freedom and liberty and all this is fantastic. Or everything is terrible; The internet has created all these tools for cracking down and spying and controlling what we say. And the thing is both are true. The Internet has done both and both are kind of amazing and astonishing and which one will win out in the long run is up to us. It doesn’t make sense to say, ‘Oh, one is doing better than the other.’ They’re both true and it’s up to us which ones we emphasize and which one’s we take advantage of because they’re both there and they’re both always going to be there.”

-Aaron Swartz, 2012 interview with War for the Web

The Internet is the most amazing tool we’ve ever had. It is up to us to ensure that it stays that way; if we do not weigh in, if we do not make our voices heard, we will not get the results that we want. It is time to get up and speak your mind. There are voices in this country trying to hold power accountable, organizations like Fight for the Future, Public Knowledge, and Demand Progress. We need to stand with them to ensure we get what we want from the future.

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