Bullies, stalkers: the internet quandry

Most of us could call ourselves digital converts. We socialize online, we shop online, we tweet, post, email, search and generally rely on our online connections. It is who we are these days. Streaming music? Downloading movies? Clicking on shows on YouTube? Every hour, every second you do these activities each day identifies you as a digital convert or, perhaps, addict.

On the other hand, some of us have been trolled or bullied, have accidentally opened an infected email attachment, or had our account hacked and become internet exiles, if only for a while.

In either event, all of you, us, have had the service we click on, the numbers we call via Skype or What’s Ap, every movement you make online — all these and more are someone else’s data and become their data analytics assets — the governments, advertisers or corporations.

The internet was born in January 1983 when a number of research networks were joined together. I was on Science Net as early as 1985. I can remember sending a confidential memo to someone at NASA, only to find I had typed a comma instead of a semicolon and every single mailbox of NASA researchers got my message — and many answered with intelligent thoughts I had not considered. From 1983, the network has grown and spread and has had tremendous impact on who we are and how we work, play and interrelate.

But it is worth remembering that this is all so new that we all, every single internet connection, we all are making up this internet thing as we go along. No one ever sat down and planned this out. No one ever thought out the morals, ethics, sociology, business or economy of the Internet. It just grew. 

The code that runs the network, the code in your computer, your tablet and your smart phone — as well as every router, every hub, every massive storage facility — all this code was written by someone, many someones, one on top of another. In writing all that code through, only early pioneers worked with certain principles, certain ideals.

In 1999, Prof. Larry Lessig, a brilliant ethics lawyer at Harvard now, wrote a book called “Code.” In this book he made a statement that we all need to remember: “Code is law.” 

What he meant was that the rules that are embodied in the programming that makes the internet perfectly contain a set of values and a set of assumptions. They tell you what you can and cannot do. And they make decisions for you that you cannot violate. Law.

The problem, however, was that back 25 years ago, the people expanding on the principles of the first inventors did not share the values and altruism of those early developers and inventors. They wrote code, law, to suit their own needs and aims. And these folks, Gates, Jobs, Page, Brin and their pals, were internet colonists with only commercial aims in mind. 

And that has created a huge problem for society as a whole. They have constructed, on the back of the internet, a whole host of commercial needs that rely on surveillance, extracting value from our attention, dedicated to penetrating our privacy in service of their commercial gain, as well as supporting those branches of world governments that like to be intrusive into our lives. As one paper put it when Snowden leaked the NSA plans: Forget the NSA spying on you; Google has much more information on each and every one of us.

There are discussions in academia currently that are based on the theory that fixing the internet to protect the individual may not be possible. Indeed, as soon as Congress allows commercial interests to scale and otherwise charge proportionately for your viewing time, the capture of the internet for commercial gain will be complete. 

These academic discussions are looking into building a parallel internet, one based on original principles, one without commercial advantage or impetus. Kind of like public broadcasting was (before they, too, loaded up with commercials). It may already be too late to have any societal or cultural discussion on the internet as it relates to your privacy and control. Perhaps it is time for a NewNet.

Peter Riva, a former resident of Amenia Union, now lives in New Mexico.