Bruce Schneier On The Feudal Internet And How To Fight It

from the what-went-wrong? dept

There aren't many upsides to Snowden's revelations that NSA is essentially spying on the entire Internet, all the time, but if one good thing has already come out of that sorry state of affairs it's the emergence of security expert Bruce Schneier as a mainstream commentator on the digital world. That's largely because his core expertise has been shoved into the very center of our concerns, making his thoughts on what's going on particularly valuable.

One fruitful theme that he has been developing recently is the idea of feudal computing (I imagine it could well turn out to be the subject of his next book.) Schneier first wrote about this even before the NSA story broke, back in November last year. He then revisited the idea shortly after the first Snowden story appeared, and has now returned to the theme again, in what is perhaps his best essay on the subject so far. It's called "Power in the Age of the Feudal Internet," and explores some of the implications of our new digital dystopia -- and what we can do about it. It begins by describing how things were supposed to be:

In its early days, there was a lot of talk about the "natural laws of the Internet" and how it would empower the masses, upend traditional power blocks, and spread freedom throughout the world. The international nature of the Internet made a mockery of national laws. Anonymity was easy. Censorship was impossible. Police were clueless about cybercrime. And bigger changes were inevitable. Digital cash would undermine national sovereignty. Citizen journalism would undermine the media, corporate PR, and political parties. Easy copying would destroy the traditional movie and music industries. Web marketing would allow even the smallest companies to compete against corporate giants. It really would be a new world order.
Unfortunately, as we know, that's not how it worked out. Instead, we have seen the rise of the feudal Internet:
Feudal security consolidates power in the hands of the few. These companies [like Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook etc.] act in their own self-interest. They use their relationship with us to increase their profits, sometimes at our expense. They act arbitrarily. They make mistakes. They're deliberately changing social norms. Medieval feudalism gave the lords vast powers over the landless peasants; we’re seeing the same thing on the Internet.
More recently, we have witnessed the dangerous alignment of private and governmental interests and power:
Both corporations and governments want ubiquitous surveillance, and the NSA is using Google, Facebook, Verizon, and others to get access to data it couldn't otherwise. The entertainment industry is looking to governments to enforce their antiquated business models.
A key question is: how did this happen? How did things go so wrong when they seemed to start off so well? Schneier has a good answer:
The truth is that technology magnifies power in general, but the rates of adoption are different. The unorganized, the distributed, the marginal, the dissidents, the powerless, the criminal: they can make use of new technologies faster. And when those groups discovered the Internet, suddenly they had power. But when the already powerful big institutions finally figured out how to harness the Internet for their needs, they had more power to magnify. That's the difference: the distributed were more nimble and were quicker to make use of their new power, while the institutional were slower but were able to use their power more effectively.
And that's where we are today, at a point where the big institutions -- governments above all -- have finally overcome their initial cluelessness, and worked out that as well as being a threat to their power, the Internet could also be a means for them to consolidate it. Fortunately, Schneier has some practical suggestions about what we need to do now in order to tip the balance back towards the people:
In the short term, we need more transparency and oversight. The more we know of what institutional powers are doing, the more we can trust that they are not abusing their authority. We have long known this to be true in government, but we have increasingly ignored it in our fear of terrorism and other modern threats. This is also true for corporate power. Unfortunately, market dynamics will not necessarily force corporations to be transparent; we need laws to do that. The same is true for decentralized power; transparency is how we will differentiate political dissidents from criminal organizations.

Oversight is also critically important, and is another long-understood mechanism for checking power. This can be a combination of things: courts that act as third-party advocates for the rule of law rather than rubber-stamp organizations, legislatures that understand the technologies and how they affect power balances, and vibrant public-sector press and watchdog groups that analyze and debate the actions of those wielding power.

Transparency and oversight give us the confidence to trust institutional powers to fight the bad side of distributed power, while still allowing the good side to flourish. For if we are going to entrust our security to institutional powers, we need to know they will act in our interests and not abuse that power. Otherwise, democracy fails.
There's much more in Schneier's essay, including thoughts on the "security gap", and why the longer-term solution is to reduce power differences by opening up data. It's a really important piece that pulls together many of the big issues that Snowden's leaks have raised. Unusually, it not only offers a compelling analysis of what's wrong, but also some sensible, if broad-brush, thoughts on how to put it right.

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