Industry Must Not Allow NSA Scandal to Make the Internet into the New Corvair

by Mike Wendy on June 25, 2013

I’ve gotta’ say that when it comes to the NSA mess were now seeing, one thing that has amazed me most is the emergence of a loud chorus of think-tanks / “consumer advocacy” groups going cricket on this matter.  Organizations from across the ideological spectrum – especially ones that get all aflutter about various aspects of Internet privacy – well, they’ve gone silent.

Of course, when it comes to any other of their pet peeves, they’re all over the news.  Net neutrality.  Mergers.  Spectrum allocations.  Copyright.  They certainly know how to get loud when they want.

Not here.

Go to their websites and you’ll see (or, rather, not see) what they’re (not) saying.   Quite simply, their output on this issue, arguably one that goes to the heart of the Internet economy – TRUST – seems to be, er, greatly attenuated of late.

I don’t often say this, but of the organizations policing the techpol space, Free Press and EFF stand out as exceptions.  They are bird-dogging this with zeal, so hat tip to them.  The rest have apparently clammed up, essentially taking themselves out of the debate (as instructed by Silicon Valley?).

This sudden dumbness seems particularly damning for the so-called “Internet Freedom,” limited-government groups.

Here’s a related policy statement from one such Google-funded entity:

The unique nature of the Internet – free from government control and governed by multiple stakeholders – has unleashed unprecedented entrepreneurship, creativity and innovation far beyond imagination. Every day, the Internet provides access to information and personalized content to hundreds of millions of people around the globe – free of charge and free of political interference. Freedom is essential to the preservation of that platform and the resulting economic growth, job creation and political liberty.

The Internet Association supports policies that protect and promote Internet freedom – information should flow freely across national borders, uninhibited by tariffs, regulations and government censorship that are fundamentally inconsistent with the transnational, free and decentralized nature of the Internet. To preserve the Internet’s role as a conduit for free expression, Internet intermediaries must not be held liable for the speech and activity of Internet users.

I mean, you could stop at the first line. Free from government control?  C’mon, who’re ya’ kidding?  The NSA snooping partnerships promote the free flow of expression?  Are you serious?  How am I free when I’m being exploited and randomly surveilled?

Gimme a break.

As for the rest of the free marketer groups, it would seem the NSA matter presents a unique opportunity to explain how self-regulatory tools like reputation management and industry best practices can / must be employed to make the current situation better.  But, as with their lefty brethren, most have taken an “ixnay on the oopingsnay” approach.  I think this is not only wrong, but also a credibility-killer.

The industry – Left and Right – can do better.  Clear verbs are needed.

So, let me offer a couple.

I believe in strong national security, with targeted, 4th Amendment-compliant surveillance.  The current mess is just that – a mess.  The dragnet is harmful.  But, it ain’t all Uncle Sam’s fault.  The whole of the ecosystem has some ‘splainin’ to do.  To that end, we need to know when companies were strong-armed by the government, and, perhaps more importantly, when they weren’t and why.  A myriad of other questions obviously need answering, too.

Of course, Uncle Sam needs a thorough examination also.  Among other things, the oversight process has failed miserably (perhaps it was built that way?).

The goal here is not to bust people.  Rather, it’s to bring back some needed trust lost by the recent surveillance discoveries.  Trust is what the Internet runs on – from its development and governance to its end-use. We need more of it, not less if we want the Internet to grow and benefit us all.

It’s not in Uncle Sam’s nature, however, to build this back for the ecosystem.  I am convinced by the little which we now see that if government had its druthers, it would want to fully own, operate and control the Internet to keep people, you know, safe from themselves (among other things).

It’s incumbent on the industry to help users know that the “essential Internet” isn’t being exploited as a tool of government (or other) control that can bring more harm than good.  We have to tell this story.  We have to live it, too.  It can’t be faked.  And then we have to go about earnestly working with Congress, the Executive branch and policymakers to fix the legal, institutional and mechanical processes of gaining useful information to protect our nation.

In short, the industry must work harder to insure that the Internet does not become the new Corvair – a vehicle unsafe at any speed.  If we don’t, we’ll have only ourselves to blame for letting Uncle Sam backseat-drive our industry into the ditch.

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