The Dream of Internet Freedom Doesn’t Have to Die

This post is a version of the introduction to the author’s keynote speech, “The Lifecycle of a Revolution” at this year’s Black Hat information security conference.

Twenty years ago, I attended my first Def Con. I believed in a free, open, reliable, interoperable Internet: a place where anyone could say anything, and anyone who wanted to hear it could listen and respond. I believed in the Hacker Ethic: that information should be freely accessible and that computer technology was going to make the world a better place. I wanted to be a part of making these dreams—the dream of Internet freedom—come true. As an attorney, I wanted to protect hackers and coders from the predations of law so that they could do this important work.

Today, the dream of Internet Freedom that brought me to my first Def Con is dying. The dream is dying because, for better or for worse, we’ve prioritized things like security, online civility, user interface, and intellectual property interests above freedom and openness.

As a result, the Internet is less open and more centralized. It’s more regulated. And increasingly it’s less global, and more divided. These trends: centralization, regulation, and globalization are accelerating. And they will define the future of our communications network, unless something dramatic changes.

Let’s take a quick look at just a few of the things likely to happen if these trends continue.

Twenty years from now:  

  • You won’t necessarily know anything about the software-driven decisions that affect your rights, such as whether you get a loan, a job, or if a driverless car runs over you. Things will happen as a result of computing data and no one will really be able to understand why.
  • When the public learns about these secret decisions, we will be comfortable with these outcomes so long as they mostly affect the rights of minorities or the people who help our society and societies around the world to change. This isn’t only unfair, it burdens the people that push society to evolve.
  • The Internet will become a lot more like TV and a lot less like the global conversation we envisioned 20 years ago.
  • Internet technology design will increasingly facilitate rather than defeat censorship and control.

Rather than being overturned, existing power structures will be reinforced and replicated, and this is particularly true for security. Instead of thinking about global network security, our government talks about “cyber” with the idea that the internet is a U.S. military asset. In other words, powerful groups, those with money, assets, government and market power will decide who gets security and who does not.

It doesn’t have to be this way, but to change course, we need to ask some hard questions and make some difficult decisions.

How can we stop being afraid and start being sensible about risk? Should we worry more about another terrorist attack in New York, or the ability of journalists, human rights workers, and everyday citizens around the world to keep working, helping, and creating?  What does it mean for companies to know everything about us and for computer algorithms to make life and death decisions?

How much free speech does a free society really need? And privacy: what is it good for?

Technology has enabled a “golden age” for surveillance. Can technology now establish a balance of power between governments and the governed that guards against social and political oppression? Given that decisions by private companies define individual rights and security, how can we act on that understanding in a way that protects the public interest doesn’t squelch innovation? Whose responsibility is digital security? What about the dream of Internet Freedom? 

About the Author(s)

Jennifer Granick

Surveillance and Cybersecurity Counsel at the ACLU's Project on Speech, Privacy and Technology Follow her on Twitter (@granick).