The most popular article on The Atlantic yesterday was a sloppy-wet rant about how the National Security Agency (NSA) has “commandeered” the internet. Yes, commandeered it. The author of the post, Bruce Schneier, wrote that the government’s “surveillance apparatus” has taken over “vast swaths” of the internet just as the military commandeers ships and factories during wartime. But since we’re not at war (we’re not?) and this is peacetime (it is?), this commandeering is unacceptable.
There’s an important point to be made here about how we as Americans regard both corporations and the government, but first things first. This article is absurd.
Schneier literally begged internet tech companies to shield him from the big bad government by refusing NSA’s requests to attain user data as part of the agency’s effort to monitor overseas communications. Yes, this is where we’ve arrived: Team Greenwald is pleading with for-profit corporations to protect them from the government. On the surface, it appears to be another significant lurch in the direction of Ron Paul’s huffy-puffy whimsical jalopy brand of fantastical anti-government libertarianism. More on this presently.
The unspoken reality is that the government invented the internet when it established ARPANET, under the Defense Department agency now known as DARPA (home of the creepy robots). The government also regulates the internet. Government R&D funding helped to create Mosaic, the first web browser. The government will spend $1.4 billion on web infrastructure and content next year (not enough, in my opinion). The United States ranks ninth in internet speed and this pathetic ranking won’t be solved by tech companies alone. The government is the only thing that stands between net neutrality and corporate-tiered bandwidth. The reality is that in terms of “commandeering” the internet, the government was here before you were.
And, yes, the government also collects relatively minor bits of your internet data (with multi-layered oversight, warrants, anonymization, minimization and deletion) in its efforts to track down enemies.
Liberals ought to be far more suspicious of for-profit corporations handling our private data than the government’s handling of considerably less of it. But that doesn’t appear to be the case, and this is where everything gets wacky.
Most of us, presumably including Mr. Schneier, are voluntary customers of numerous for-profit tech companies of all shapes and sizes, including the ones that provide data to NSA. I find it difficult to believe that Schneier and other like-minded Ed Snowden acolytes don’t use Google or Microsoft or Apple products nearly every day. And unless I missed the news about customers fleeing from Skype or Gmail en masse, especially in light of this Summer’s NSA news, it’s clear that most Americans are okay with allowing corporations to access information that’s vastly more detailed and personal than NSA has ever attempted to gather.
NSA, and the U.S. government in general, isn’t interested in our Instagram pics of our disgusting dinners or our Wonka memes or our goats-that-scream-like-men videos. But Facebook is. Google is. Corporations are exploiting nearly everything you type and following you wherever your browse. They’re compiling it. They’re distributing it. They’re sharing it. They’re using your data to determine which products you might want to purchase. They’re censoring your breast-feeding pics and perhaps even threatening you with prosecution if you download an episode of Game of Thrones from Bit Torrent.
And people are wailing and chest-thumping over inadvertent government metadata collection with strict rules that prohibit infringements on Fourth Amendment liberty? That’s rich.
Case in point: even Schneier’s article gathered more information about me than NSA.
While viewing Schneier’s article, I ran a browser privacy extension called Ghostery, which detects web bugs embedded in a page. The result? 33 different corporate trackers on Schneier’s page, including ads (one from Shell Energy) and numerous analytics services that ascertain detailed demographics and tracking information about my visit to the page: Google Analytics (one the companies that Schneier said had caved to NSA pressure), Google Adsense, Facebook (another tech company in cahoots with NSA), Chartbeat, CoreAudience, Integral Ad Service, NetRatings SiteCensus, Omniture, SimpleReach, Value Revenue and VoiceFive. (For what it’s worth, Glenn Greenwald’s XKEYSCORE article on The Guardian contained 27 trackers, including PRISM participants Google and Facebook.)
Yes, most web pages, including my article here on The Daily Banter, use analytics to determine who’s visiting the site. But we’re not pretending to be self-righteously above it all, nor do we claim to be a haven of personal privacy. We’re also well aware that concerned readers can easily opt out by blocking the trackers.
More broadly speaking, you can opt out of everything, including NSA data collection, by taking basic measures against it: you can go entirely off the grid; you can install encryption software; you can buy prepaid phones; you can load ad-blocker extensions and you can attain other technology to hide your hilarious cat memes from Barack Obama. You can stop using Google, Facebook and Windows Live. Fact: your level of digital privacy is your prerogative.
But I suspect even the most vocal government critics will continue to be willing participants in American corporate/consumer culture, just as Occupy Wall Street supporters voiced their disdain for corporations by tweeting about it via handheld devices constructed in Chinese sweat-shops by exploited workers.
How shall we explain the disparity between the Great Fear of the government collecting minimal data and the almost unspoken reality that corporations have compiled massive data clouds about every user and every customer? I don’t know for sure. It could be a result of pissy-pants disillusionment over the Obama presidency based on overblown idealism, political ignorance and unrealistic expectations. It could be the consequence of an onslaught of fear-mongering from news outlets posting cavalcades of scare-headlines and misleading articles about NSA surveillance. Or it could be an increasingly evident paradigm shift in which the far-left is blending into fringe libertarian territory. I never thought it likely given libertarianism’s small government, states’ rights posture, but there it is.
Clearly, at least according to Bruce Schneier, corporations are somehow finer guardians of privacy rights — and far more worthy of running the internet — than the government, even though all evidence indicates that corporations are absolutely not worthy of such accolades. The truth is, corporations are rapidly commandeering the web, while the government, composed of We The People, is bizarrely regarded as a far greater poison in the mix.
It appears as if we’re through the looking glass.