It was a year ago that revelation the NSA spying on internet data came about. And since then, more has been revealed and activists have tried to fight back. Meanwhile, the FCC unveiled a proposal to alter the way the internet works to give those with money an ability to distribute their content more efficiently than those without and more activists have tried to fight that proposal.
But unfortunately, as technology activists, we have failed to talk about how all those fights connect to each other and to everyday life. To many people living in democratic countries, the debates around net neutrality or NSA surveillance are interesting news item but things that only geeks worry about.
And while coalitions are built to fight the latest threat to the Internet, whether it is government surveillance, telecom or cable mergers, net neutrality, or something else, there has not been a unifying force tying all of those discussions together into a message that is easily understood by anyone outside of the technology world.
And that unifying force is choice.
This choice is about debating whether we want an internet where we give up a right to personal privacy in exchange for the promise of potential security from terrorist or whether we want policing forces to be under the same kind of check and balances as they are in the real world, requiring warrants before searches, but somewhat slowed down by the process.
This choice is about debating whether we believe that the convenience of faster access to content should be traded in in exchange for letting the cable/phone/wireless company decide which site or app goes faster (based on financial arrangement with the provider of said app/site) or whether we want to retain the existing level playing field where every site/app works at the same speed albeit a potentially slightly slower one that could lead to an occasional hiccup when watching a movie on Netflix/YouTube/Hulu/Amazon/Vudu/Aero or whatever new video service pops up.
This choice is about deciding whether we want our internet to be more like a television, where tight regulations and a limited set of suppliers control what can and cannot be seen but also provide higher production value content or whether we want it to be more like our real world mailboxes, where pamphleteers have similar rights to express their opinions as newspapers do but the flood of content can also mean seeing things that you were not expecting.
This choice is about whether we think the internet we have today fosters creativity and the development of new products and services or whether we believe that the internet is fundamentally broken and should be fixed by giving a small set of people/companies/organizations a large amount of control over its future.
This choice is about defining whether we want an internet that is more messy but more free, creating a level-playing ground for anyone with an idea and the willingness to work hard on making that idea a possibility or whether we want an internet that is more convenient but less diverse, creating a more homogenous experience while granting the right to distribute new products and services only to those who can afford it.
And in this fight, there are two sides: do you believe in the internet or do you want something else?
If you choose the internet, you choose an internet where you have rights to free speech and privacy that is no different than the ones you have offline (in the US, those rights are covered under the first and fourth amendments to the US constitution); If you choose the internet, you choose an internet where all products and services are delivered at the same speed;
Of course, that choice does not come without some costs: If you choose the internet, there is a chance that some illegal activities will be performed on it; If you choose the internet, there is a chance that some things you disagree with will be appearing on it; If you choose the internet, there is a chance that your convenience will be impeded by that of other people.
Those are the trade offs you have to make. I know which ones I’m willing to make: for over two decades, I’ve seen an internet where thousands of businesses have flourished, creating billions (or maybe even trillions) of dollars in value for millions of people; I’ve seen millions of voices being given a chance to rise up against injustice, organize themselves, and share their message through the tools that are available on the internet.
As a result, I stand with the internet and I proclaim on high “my choice in the internet.”
My choice is the internet because I believe that the traditional system of search warrants is strong enough not to have mass capture of data by the NSA. The government may want access to my data but I should have a right to fight it publicly in court if I disagree with their reasoning.
My choice is the internet because I believe that every entrepreneur should have a level playing field against the established online players. How fast my internet hookup is based on my willingness as a consumer to buy a faster line and when I do, all providers benefit equally, whether it is one guy with a personal app or a multi-billion dollar corporation.
My choice is the internet because I believe that all voices, even the ones I disagree with, have a right to be heard. I may make a personal choice to not go to those sites or download those apps but I do not believe in anyone else making that choice for me.
My choice is the internet. What’s yours?