Give up on the net?

Die Zeit asked a handful of people to answer their question, in essence: Have big companies and the NSA ruined the internet? Or to quote the email to me: “Have all the hopes concerning the internet been destroyed?” Here’s my answer in English; the German translation is here.

The battle for control — and the soul — of the internet has only just begun.

I doubt the net’s creators realized how subversive it was to connect anyone to anyone, bypassing the institutions that mediated those connections: from media to government, universities to retailers. These institutions are now circling wagons to protect their prerogatives: copyright for media, secrecy for government.

But as much as they want to take charge of it, the internet is less about institutions than individuals. Now anyone who’s connected can speak to, find, join, and act with a public. Anyone can find information, learn, sell, and create.

Yes, large new institutions are born to serve these needs and opportunities: Google to connect us with information, Facebook with each other, Twitter with everyone. They and we are negotiating norms and ethics regarding privacy, transparency, and control, a process that’s progressing.

Then enter government. It may portray itself as the protector of privacy but it is instead the greatest threat to privacy, for it can gather information and use it against us as no one else can. It abuses the net.

The problem Edward Snowden uncovered in the NSA is not technology. The issue is transparency. The NSA demonstrates that secrecy corrupts and absolute secrecy corrupts absolutely.

We must engage in the discussion Snowden finally sparked about the principles of a free and open society, which we must protect in the face of the new opportunities technology presents to, in the words of NSA chief Keith Alexander, “collect it all.”

Those principles, which I proposed in my book Public Parts, include:
* An ethic of privacy, compelling governments and companies not to steal our data without our knowledge.
* The ideal that government must be open by default and secret by necessity; today, it is the opposite.
* The right to connect, speak, assemble and act online as off.
* The understanding that if any bit on the net is stopped, detoured, or spied upon by any institution then no bit — or the net itself — can be presumed to be free.
* And agreement that the net must remain open and distributed, controlled or corrupted by no government.