The Internet is trending toward a highly isolated place that is under constant surveillance. Firstly, we should talk about why these are problems, and then potential solutions.
Taken alone, each of these things can be dismissed as small issues. In aggregate, however, and looking at long term trends, experts foresee serious issues with the free and open internet.
Security and privacy experts are nearly unanimous in speaking out against the rapid decay of privacy and the barriers forming to the free-flow of information. The Internet is headed toward a landscape where we have oases divided by wide deserts, small islands with dictators who make the rules over their corner of the web. Slowly, we are drawing borders virtually within the web just like national borders.
Isolation: The forces that push nations to their own, separate Internet.
The early days of the Internet fostered a legendary period of growth, investment, communication, and innovation. This benefited everyone and changed the world, arguably for the better.
As countries get involved in the Internet, they are, increasingly, isolating themselves from the world community.
This happens through two avenues, censorship and regulation.
Censorship: Giving a Distorted Version of Reality for Greater Control
Aggressive campaigns against the free Internet are being carried out to suppress information. There’s many examples of this happening on the nation-state level and on the international scale. Countries block content, ban apps, or even redirect their citizens to sites with false information to shape their opinions.
Internationally, the Russian Federation abuses weak take-down systems to remove content that makes their countries’ actions look bad. On YouTube, the automated report and take-down system is routinely abused to remove content about the war in Ukraine through mass reporting of content. It is a very effective propaganda tool that allows the Russians to remove checks on their unpopular political actions.
Increasingly, companies and countries alike are spending small fortunes on guerilla campaigns to sway public opinion or push product sales. These strategies often involve lying about alternatives and aggressively silencing dissent using overwhelming numbers of fake accounts.
The Chinese government aggressively blocks outside media sources, suppresses stories about current events, and arrests journalists that speak out against the regime too aggressively. China, Syria, Iran, Turkey and Vietnam currently house 161 journalists in prison.
The Saudi government murders reporters.
All of these abuses are caused by technology failures that are completely solvable problems. The financial and political will to correct them isn’t there.
The technology to fight these types of abuses exists, but right now, the economy of the web has consolidated into dangerously few companies. These large corporations (examples: Apple, Google, Amazon) are more likely to play ball in the name of profits rather than use technology that will foster greater flow of information to the outside world. With Amazon Web Services and WordPress dominating the landscape, there is little resistance to unreasonable telemetry, or in the case of some countries, outright surveillance.
Regulation: Misunderstanding of Technology Leading to Bad Laws
The European Union is in the process of enacting legislation that will create complex take-down systems for copyright that will increase abuse of these systems. The top technology companies in the world are incapable of creating the requested systems and the liability provisions in the law will create a mess that will simultaneously stifle innovation and diminish existing services.
The Australian government just enacted a law that forces Australian companies to compromise their customer data for “law enforcement purposes” or face a fine, opening the door for other countries to make similar demands for their own reasons. Companies now face the choice of complying with Australian law or leaving the market. When companies flee from this law, Australian competitors will take their place, whom the rest of the world will now distrust with their private data.
The United States formalizing an anti-net-neutrality stance pledges to make fast and slow lanes on the Internet that only benefits the largest companies that can afford to pay. Again stifling innovation and making American companies less viable in the future of the free web.
These attempts to regulate the free flow of information are slowly creating “islands” on the internet.
Foreign companies wanting to avoid legal hassles, growing mistrust in foreign brands of software and equipment, consolidation of services into a small handful of companies that own everything, and direct governmental interference through surveillance and cyberwar campaigns are becoming norms that promise to shatter the internet into fragments that rarely communicate with one another.
A world where we have nationwide networks that don’t readily communicate with other nations would be devastating to enabling global change for the better. It removes a massive source of international dialogue between the citizens of countries with vastly different views of the world, and will snuff out the free exchange of ideas that have led to unprecedented innovation and economic growth around the world. Sure, the Internet has many problems that it still needs to solve, but like many other tools, it can be used for tremendous good or to inflict tremendous harm.
Experts agree that the climate of the web is changing for the worse. We need to collectively make sure that this doesn’t continue.
What you can do:
Support free software projects that aim to fix these problems. Encryption is particularly effective against most of these forms of manipulation. Projects that encrypt your web traffic, encrypt your DNS requests, mask your IP, hide your browser fingerprint, or standards like Encrypted SNI that make it hard for censorship systems to work at all need your help.
If you don’t have developer skills (let’s be real, most of us don’t) toss them a little money for a beer or a cup of coffee. Even a small amount of support adds up for these developers as it is as much emotional support for the cause as it is financial support for their expenses.
The only way that we can reverse this trend is by developing and adopting censorship and surveillance resistant technologies on a wide-scale.