By Dan Gillmor
Our New Year’s resolutions tend to be well-meaning and hard to keep. That’s because we resolve to change our lives in fundamental ways – get fit, etc. But inertia and habit are the enemy of change, and we usually fall back into old patterns. It’s human nature.
Despite all that, I’ve made a resolution for 2014. It is to do whatever I can to reverse my country’s trajectory toward being a surveillance state, and to push as hard as possible for a truly open internet.
I realize I can’t do much on my own, and hope many others, especially journalists, will join in. This year may be pivotal; if we don’t make progress, or worse, lose ground, it may be too late.
Thanks to whistleblowers, especially Edward Snowden, and the journalists who’ve reported on what they’ve been shown, the citizens of many countries have a far better idea than before about the extent to which security and law enforcement services have invaded their lives. We’ve learned about the stunning capabilities of the National Security Agency and others to create a real-life Panopticon, spying on and recording everything we say and do. We’ve learned that they abuse their powers – because that is also human nature – and lie incessantly, even to the people who are supposed to keep them in check. And we’ve learned that the technology industry is, if not in bed with the surveillance state, its chief arms dealer.
Meanwhile, the telecom industry – and its corporate and political allies – have been working hard to turn the internet into just an enhanced form of cable television. They are trying to end any vestige of what’s come to be known as “network neutrality“, the idea that we users of the internet, not the corporate middlemen, should make the decisions about what bits of information get delivered to our devices.
These forces of centralized control are pushing laws and policies that amount to an abrogation of free speech and free assembly. They don’t just chill our ability to communicate. They also threaten innovation and our economy.
Yet there has also been some progress. Earlier whistleblowers who didn’t have Snowden’s documentation have been vindicated. Members of Congress who’ve been warning, obliquely, about what was happening have been proven right, and have made dramatic inroads with colleagues who want to rein in some of the spying. Several technology companies are claiming to be outraged by what’s been going on, and say they’re taking steps to bolster their customers’ and users’ security. Several federal judges have chosen to uphold their oath of office by ruling that some of the NSA‘s activities violate the constitution. Public opinion is evolving.
The open internet isn’t dead, either. The new head of the Federal Communications Commission has said he wants to protect net neutrality (though he’s also made troubling suggestions about fast lanes for certain content). New technology initiatives are emerging that could help protect us as well, such as the Open Technology Institute’s just-launched Commotion project to create community-based “mesh networks” that carriers can’t control.
Progress, but not nearly enough. The heads of the privacy-destroying agencies have made it absolutely clear that they don’t have the slightest intention of moderating their activities; they plan, if anything, to accelerate their invasions of our lives. Meanwhile, most of the politicians who swear to “protect and defend the constitution” are, in fact, the surveillance abusers’ chief defenders.
So what can Americans do, as individuals and together? A great deal, I believe.
We can call and write our members of Congress. As a resident of California, I recognize the futility of doing this with our senior Senator, Dianne Feinstein, who has made it her mission to protect and defend the NSA (FBI, CIA, DEA, et al) , and not the Bill of Rights. But I’m still letting her and other elected officials know my views on surveillance, the open internet and related matters.
I’ve never been a single-issue voter. Yet, I’m increasingly leaning toward making these the overriding issues on how I vote. I can now imagine supporting a candidate with whom I disagree on almost everything else but who vows to make them his or her top issues as well. (I also realize the risk of this approach – we’ve been lulled by politicians’ false promises in the past.)
We can support organizations whose mission it is to protect our rights and work for open communications. Among the many in this category, two stand out for their essential and often effective work: the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. On Thursday, the ACLU said it will appeal one judge’s awful ruling to uphold the NSA’s indiscriminate collection of phone data.
The EFF and ACLU are, as noted, just two of the many organizations and lobbies that are working on our behalf. Do some homework, and make your own decisions on who deserves your support. They are leverage, and they need our help.
We can do more to make liberty and security part of our own use of technology. I use encryption wherever possible, for example, and keep my software up to date. I also use Linux and other non-proprietary software wherever possible.
I also want to make a special appeal here to journalists. A few of you have done fantastic work in recent months in exposing the growing surveillance state. And a few of you have been paying attention in recent years to the growing control-freakery that threatens the open internet.
We need more of you to jump into these arenas, pronto. You have a selfish reason to do this; surveillance and a controlled internet will destroy your ability to do your jobs properly. But you have a higher calling as well. Journalism at its best is about holding powerful people and institutions accountable. When you do your jobs, you serve the people who need to know what is being done with their money and in their names, and who need information to make sound decisions in all aspects of their lives.
As an incurable optimist, I’m hoping this will be the year we look back on as a vital phase of America’s recovery from its post September 11 insanity. It won’t happen by itself, however. This cause needs our attention, and our work.