So we are in the middle of an epic battle for power in cyberspace. On the one side, it’s traditional power, think of organized institutional powers like governments and large multi-international corporations. On the other side, think of distributed power, both the good part and the bad part: grassroots movements, dissidents’ groups, hackers, criminals…
Initially, the Internet gave power to the distributed. It gave them coordination and efficiency and made them seem unbeatable. Today, traditional powers are back and they’re winning big. What I want to do here is tell the story of those two powers fighting. Who wins and how our society survives their battle.
So back in the early days of the Internet, there was a lot of talk about its natural laws. Censorship was impossible, anonymity was easy, police were clueless about cybercrime. The Internet was fundamentally international and it would be a new world order. Traditional power blocks are bended, masses empowered, freedom spread throughout the world, and this will all be inevitable. It was a utopian vision, but some of it did actually come to pass: in marketing, entertainment, mass-media, political organizing, crowd funding and crowd sourcing. The changes were dramatic.
eBay really did normalize the world’s attics. And Facebook and Twitter really did help topple governments. But that was just one side of the Internet’s disruptive character. It’s also made traditional power more powerful.
On the corporate world, there are two trends that are currently feeling this: First, the rise of cloud computing means we no longer have control of our data: our email, photos, calendar, address book, messages, documents, they’re now on servers belonging to Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and others. And second, we are increasingly accessing our data using devices that are tightly controlled by vendors.
Think of your iPhone, your iPad, your Android phone, your Kindle, your Chromebook. And even the new computer OSs, Microsoft and Apple, are heading in this direction, with less user control. And both of these trends increase corporate power by giving them more control of our data and therefore of us.
Government power is also increasing on the Internet. There’s more government surveillance than ever before. We know now the NSA is eavesdropping on the entire planet. There’s more censorship than ever before. There’s more propaganda. More governments are controlling what the users can and cannot do on the Internet. Totalitarian governments are embracing the Internet as a means for control. And many countries are pushing cyberwar as a reason of a control.
On both the corporate and the government side, traditional power on the Internet is huge. And in many cases, the interests are aligning. Surveillance is the business model of the Internet, and business surveillance gives governments access to data it couldn’t get otherwise. But you could think of it as a public-private surveillance partnership.
So what happened? How in those early Internet years did we get the future so wrong? The truth is that technology magnifies power in general, but the rates of adoption are different. The distributed can make use of new technologies faster. They’re small but nimble, they’re not hindered by bureaucracy, and some of these are not by laws or ethics, and they can adapt faster. And when those groups discovered the Internet, suddenly they had power. It was a change in kind. We saw that in e-commerce.
Can you remember, as soon as the Internet started being used for commerce, a new bread of cyber criminal emerged, like out of the ground, immediately able to take advantage. And the police who are like trained on Agatha Christie novels took about a decade to catch up. We also saw it on social media: right marginalized groups started to immediately use the Internet’s organizing power. It took corporations, what, a decade to figure out how to co-opt it.
But when big institutions finally figured it out, they had more raw power to magnify and they got even more powerful. So that’s the difference. The distributed are more nimble and quicker to make use their new power. The institutional are slower but able to use power more effectively. So all the Syrian dissidents used Facebook to organize. The Syrian government used Facebook to identify and arrest dissidents. So who wins? Is the quick or the strong? Which type of power dominates in the coming decades?
Right now, it looks like traditional power. It’s much easier for the NSA to spy on everyone than it is for anyone to maintain privacy. China has an easier time blocking content than its citizen have getting around those blocks. And even though it’s still easy to circumvent digital copy protection, most users can’t do it. And this is because leveraging Internet power requires technical expertise. Those with sufficient ability can always stay ahead of institutional power. Whether it’s setting up your own email server or using encryption or breaking copy protection, the technologies are there. This is why cyber crime is still pervasive even as police power gets better, this is why whistle-blowers can still do so much damage, this is why organizations like Anonymous are still viable forces, and this is why social movements still thrive on the Internet.
Most of us though are stuck in the middle. We don’t have the technical ability to evade the large governments and corporations on one side, with the criminal hacker groups on the other. We can’t join any dissident movements. We have no choice but to accept the default configuration options, the arbitrator terms of service, the NSA installed back doors or the occasional complete loss of our data for some inexplicable reason. And we get isolated as government corporate powers align, and we get trampled when the powers fight. Where there’s Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon fighting it out in the marketplace, or the US, EU, China and Russia fighting out in the world, or US vs. the terrorists or the media industry vs. the pirates, or China vs. its dissidents. And this will only get worse as technology improves.