Afterword to the Paperback Edition: Confronting surveillance

The paperback edition of Consent of the Networked came out in late April. I wrote the Afterword last December. It begins:

I ended Consent of the Networked with a call for action, and in 2012 netizens around the world proved they are willing to act, as demonstrated by the movement’s recent successes. But while we have gained momentum, we face continuing challenges in the pursuit of digital liberty that will not easily be overcome.

The most difficult challenges, I argued, are posed by the already well-entrenched, pervasive, unaccountable surveillance in the United States and other democracies. That argument has been vindicated, unfortunately, by recent news about the U.S. government’s surveillance programs.

Writing in December I concluded:

Citizens of democracies, companies that understand that they can build long-term global value for their brand by earning trust with their users, and politicians who understand the need to protect and strengthen the digital commons (even if mainly out of self-interest) must unite to demand a national and global reconsideration of already deeply entrenched surveillance laws, technologies, and corporate practices. There needs to be a more robust public debate about the facts of digital surveillance in democracies, the implications for accountable governance and social justice—and what can be done now that the surveillance state has already been allowed to reach too far, too fast. That debate requires data and information that companies as well as democratic governments have so far been reluctant to share. Companies claiming to support a free and open Internet and that benefit from the existence of a robust global digital commons are doing the commons no favors unless and until they agree to publish systematic and useable information about their relationships with governments.

Furthermore, governments that want their citizens to believe that their support for global Internet freedom and citizens’ digital rights is genuine—and not shallow political rhetoric—must make sure that laws are not preventing companies from releasing such information. All governments that intend to keep calling themselves “democratic” with a straight face should publish their own transparency reports so that engaged citizens can see enough of the whole picture that they can grant or withdraw consent for, or divest from, the surveillance systems and procedures governments and companies have built. Until these things happen, Western democracies and Western companies will remain net exporters of surveillance technologies, legal norms, and business practices that facilitate political abuse of surveillance powers by repressive regimes—and that will ultimately corrode existing democracies.

Getting governments and companies to do these things will make the fights against ACTA, SOPA, and ITU Internet incursion look trivial in comparison. The global movement for digital liberty spread its wings and took flight in 2012, but the real tests of its strength and agility have yet to come.

The whole chapter is available online here.

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