I am not the first person to have said this but when the history of the internet comes to be written it will be divided into pre-Snowden and post-Snowden. To put that slightly differently, it will be divided between a time when hope sprang eternal about the possibilities of the new technology of liberation, and the time when we finally realised the grimy realities of life on Earth had never gone away.
Through smoke, mirrors and Silicon Valley’s PR Department we were fooled into thinking they had. We wuz duped.
I know this may be stating the obvious but anyone and everyone who uses the internet should, until further notice, assume that whatever they say or do on it is known to one or more Governments somewhere or other in the world, or at any rate that it could be known to them because they have it in a great data pile which they (or a hacker) could address at any time. Even using encryption may not guarantee your privacy unless you are well-informed enough to know which protocols have not been compromised.
Mind you, not using the internet cannot be recommended either. If Zero Dark Thirty is to be believed the fact that the compound in which Osama bin Laden lived did not have an internet connection was adduced as part of the proof there was something fishy about the place. You’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t.
Among many other things, the Snowden business has exposed a gigantic hole in the notion of multistakeholderism in internet governance. The same Governments that have been sitting down at the table talking about everyone having equal status in the discussions, that have spoken about the importance of respecting human rights in general and in particular about the way the internet can be an important way of promoting human rights, were simultaneously behaving in a markedly different way. OK. To go back to my earlier point maybe we, or should I just say I?, were naive to imagine it could ever have been any different but the rhetoric was heady and I believed it. By that I mean, in retrospect, I fell for it.
I appreciate the Governments and agencies which appear to have overstepped the mark were doing so as part of an effort to counter forces that have nothing but contempt for the secular, constitutional democracies in which we live but everyone needs to take a breath and construct a better pathway. It’s not enough only to convince yourself what you are doing is justified. There has to be a broader raft of support. Right now there plainly isn’t. There never could have been because of the way in which things were done.
Unless and until there is clear evidence that within certain key jurisdiction e.g. the US and the UK but several others as well, that a new settlement has been reached about the boundaries within which the State can legitimately operate in cyberspace in relation to data collection in respect of its own or other people’s citizens, linked to demonstrably effective checks, balances and supervision of the agencies that do it, I don’t see how we can make progress on wider questions of internet governance. At the moment nobody can believe anybody’s oath. And if Governments such as the US and the UK won’t convincingly put their own house in order do we really have any sort of hope of or basis for asking anyone else to do the same?
Does this mean I see no point in participating in multistakeholder environments which address internet governance? No it does not, but it is a plea that we find better ways to manage people’s expectations of what can be achieved through it. No more phoney prospectuses. No more false dawns.