The Dream of a Free and Open Internet is Dying – Jennifer Granick

From where you are now, you can see 20 years into the future: this is the case when thinking about how the Internet will change going forward according Jennifer Granick. Granick, who is the Director of Civil Liberties at the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School, was this year’s keynote speaker at the annual Black Hat conference. While not from a tech background herself, Granick gave a riveting and pointed speech on the development of the online landscape, specifically as it related to user privacy and liberty. According to Granick, the future 20 years from now does not look like the wonderful place optimists might like to believe. In fact, the chilling reality Granick conveys is that of a very grim Internet for all future users. This article goes through Granick’s speech, summarizing her points as to why, in her words, the dread for a free and open Internet is dying. Full video below.

The Dream

“The dream”, according to Granick, was of a multifaceted Internet that gave users abilities and experiences that we don’t see today. In Granick’s Internet landscape, users will have overcome the barriers of class, race, gender, and age. The Internet would use smart edges that secured our information and dumb pipes that wouldn’t be able to invade our privacy. This dream Internet landscape was decentralized, leaving our information out of the stockpiles of collected data held by companies today. Power would, as many believe it should, be put back into the hands of the user.

In this dream Internet, users would have freedom in their abilities. The ability to communicate with anyone, anytime, anywhere. Users could access the global resource of information they were looking for freely: a truly global network of people and information. Internet users would be able to, as Granick puts it, “tinker” with technology to understand how the devices and software around them functions, with the ultimate goal of having an Internet that makes the user’s life better and more free.

Today

Our Internet today does not resemble what was envisioned in the dream. Granick notes this and discusses in the major points of how our Internet today does not resemble the ideal Internet.

Race, Class, and Gender Discrimination Thrive

Granick classified the discrimination her dream overcame as resilient, being more than able to survive and thrive in our current online landscape. To support her point, Granick made reference to a couple of noteworthy statistics, highlighting the still staggering gender inequality for tech jobs, and noting that they are still overwhelmingly male and white.

Communication Stifled

A specific area Granick had much to speak on was about the ability to use the Internet as a communication platform. Granick blames government regulation and corporate policies for our capabilities being limited in this respect. We are subject to rules that govern what is acceptable speech on the Internet. Interestingly, Granick noted that this notion of acceptable speech extends in some areas but not really in others; for example, we saw previously that race, class, and gender discrimination can thrive in today’s Internet without being subject to the scrutiny that other communication is.

For Granick, this imbalance in communication censorship was indicative of political agendas. Specifically, when Granick refers to government she is referring not only to her own American government but also those of other countries that are becoming more involved in the regulation of our Internet. The issue Granick takes with regulation coming from outside of the United States is that there aren’t necessarily the same documents that protect the rights of citizens and Internet users.  

Governments are able to gain this control because of our voluntary ignorance in using centralized communication platforms. By doing this, Granick says we create bottlenecks where governments can apply pressure on businesses to form to their ideas for the Internet space.

Limited Access to Information

Granick’s dream saw a wealth of information that could be accessed when given the ability to tinker. Understanding how the technology, devices, and software around us works is necessary, and the consequences of not being able to do this, Granick says, would be a connected society where machines can make life or death decisions and human’s won’t know or understand why.

As for our Internet today, Granick explains that there are two things that limit our ability to understand the technology around us. The first is simply the natural human capacity for understanding, and the second is the law. Granick says, in our world today, the law is being used to prevent our right to understand the technology around us. She illustrates her point by highlighting the many hackers who participate in hacktivism but are ailled by copyright laws from companies trying to keep quiet about flaws in the systems. The outcomes of this can be devastating, as we’ve seen in recent media with serious vulnerabilities in vehicle computers. For examples like these, Granick calls it a public interest that the right to tinker be upheld.

Where the Fault Lies

Granick is very specific on laying the blame where it should be in her keynote. Governments hold some blame along with corporate enterprises, but it also lies with us; we are also fundamentally at fault for the Internet becoming the Internet of today.

We have created a centralized Internet because we’ve chosen convenience over privacy. We have chosen to use Facebook and Gmail, and we’ve learned to blindly agree to the terms large companies give to us. Why do we do this? Because we want the product they are offering. We happily trade our personal information for the opportunity to use an app or communicate with a user-friendly interface, even if it can be accessed and read without your knowledge.

Granick says we let centralization slip into our Internet while prioritizing other aspects of the Internet like civility, user interface, security, and intellectual property. But while we have shifted the Internet to a more centralized platform, we have also created the opportunity for control, regulation, and surveillance. We see this control beginning in the way that the Internet has changed on censorship. According to Granick, the present day Internet no longer routes around censorship but rather facilitates it. While the Internet was dreamt of as a place where existing power structures could be overturned, it is now used to reinforce the existing structure.  

Conclusion

Granick left the audience with two options for out Internet. Option one looked even more different from Granick’s dream than our Internet today: this future would have data retention obligations for companies, surveillance, secret laws, and no need for warrants when it came to retrieving any of your personal information or data. Granick was sure to note that included in the list of information not considered private by the Department of Justice was user’s biometric information.

Granick’s second option for our Internet was one where we pushed it a little closer to what the dream for our Internet used to be: a more decentralized Internet that gives the power back to the users and not companies and governments. In this Internet we would think globally rather than locally and not ignore the implications of the actions we take. Granick stressed the need for end-to-end encryption, fighting for us to reclaim smarter edges and dumber pipes. In Granick’s second option, people would be protected under the law to tinker and understand software around them to make a safer and more open world for all users of our Internet.

Jennifer Granick

(Above: Jennifer Granick)

Questions

If you listen through all of Granick’s keynote, you will hear closer to the beginning that she asks her audience a series of questions. Writing a summarizing piece on Granick’s presentation, I felt it would be appropriate to leave her questions here at the end. In this way, you are left with some food for thought from Granicks speech in the form of questions that will hopefully resonate with you in some way.

  • What will it mean when computers know everything about us and computer algorithms make life and death decisions?
  • Should we be worried more about another terrorist attack in New York or the ability for journalists and human rights activists around the world to do their jobs? How do we value and weigh each?
  • How much free speech does a free society really need?
  • We see that tech has created a golden age of surveillance; can we also use technology to readjust the balance of power between people and government to give us some privacy back?
  • If private companies are going to be determining individual rights, how do we communicate public interests without squelching innovation?
  • Who is responsible for digital security? Is the the U.S. government? Is it government’s role? Is it the private responsibility of corporations?
  • What will become of Internet freedom?

 

About Ryan Jeethan

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Ryan is a recent graduate of the University of Waterloo’s Arts & Business program focusing on UW’s unique Speech Communication program.

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