The stateÂ of the open Internet and the roleÂ of journalism in the world is more precariousÂ than I understood just a few months ago. It’s easy to focus on your day-to-day agenda and forget to look up sometimes.
This view crystalized for me while attending UNESCO’s World Press Freedom Day event in Latvia, a country with relatively fresh memories of living without free speech.
In addition to the concerns sharedÂ at journalism conferences there are troublingÂ events happening in small closed countries  and big open ones  demonstratingÂ very clearly thatÂ we are not protecting some things that should be looked after better.
Serious consequences are becoming apparent. Future generations will wonder what we were thinking.
The good news is that there are solutions and there’s still time.
Let’s be clear about what’s wrong, first:
1) Authority in all its forms has been flattened irrevocably except when it’s not
Now that we have the Internet in our pockets and can shout to the world whenever we want there is no power or unfair advantage that will go unchallenged…
…except when authoritative figures and institutions fight back unfairly and even violentlyÂ to keep us from challenging them.
Some countries have no qualms aboutÂ killing access to the InternetÂ or parts of it to keep people quiet, something very difficult to imagine for peopleÂ who have never been offline before.
2) The Internet doesn’t belong to us, and we don’t seem to mind.
Whether using choke points, back doors, or traffic sniffers, states and commercial orgs are listening to conversations. They can turn off, intercept and interject whenever, wherever they want. They watchÂ people and listen to people even when we’re not using our phones.
There’s no such thing as a private conversation anymore, but we’re not doing much to un-invite them.
It’s as if we’ve entered the NewÂ RestorationÂ and decided we don’t want to self-govern afterall.
3) Structural weaknesses are corroding the effects of independent journalism.
The business models enabling sustainable journalism aren’t dire, but meaningful funding without strings attached is trickier than ever. PoliciesÂ that once protected free speechÂ are being used to protect people from being offended. Some are beingÂ amended to increaseÂ control of the media. The tools of the trade leave journalists and their sources exposed. And the more modern structuresÂ of theÂ journalism trade aren’t mature enough yet to replace the more traditional tacticsÂ that got us here. The transition is happening, but it’s not aÂ smooth one.
All these things create serious trust issues, the founding principle shaping our belief in journalism as a health check on democratic principles.
Of course, not everyone values the role of journalism and regulators in the world equally, some not at all. That’s fine. But those of us who do value the role it playsÂ must fight harder for it as othersÂ turn away from it.
What can we do about these issues?
Frameworks and ecosystems are supportive structures and fuel for solutions, whereas rules and policing tend to incite conflict and battles. What does this picture look like through a constructive lens as opposed to a combative one?
Pragmatically, none of the solutions will mean anything without a physical manifestation of independence. If we can’t say things in private then everything else is a non-starter. There actually is a silver bullet to the technical challenge in front of us – cryptography.
EncryptionÂ is the sticky glue holding the envelopes closed on all of our correspondence. It should be embraced wholeheartedly by anyone and everyone who cares about democratic principles in the world whether you have something to hide or not.
EFF offersÂ surveillance self-defenseÂ tools and how-to’s. It’s a great place to start.
Equally, weÂ should all be better about supporting and embracing openÂ standards on the Internet.
Before Facebook and Twitter we had a distributed messaging standard owned by nobody that made possible a globalÂ content networkÂ for sharing stuff that people could choose to follow. Tons of interesting, useful and entertaining sources wereÂ publishing in real-time through it. It was called RSS.
The new “social”Â platforms came along andÂ treatedÂ openness and sharing as a core activity rather than as a tiny button deepÂ in the ‘About Us’ pagesÂ of the web site as publishers did with RSS. Now those platformsÂ dominateÂ content sharing on the Internet.
If youÂ don’t wantÂ to learn aboutÂ open standards (they can feel like nonsense sometimes, so nobody wouldÂ blame you for being annoyed by them) then maybe consider them like a tax we all need to pay in order to maintain an open Internet.
Why isn’tÂ the Internet a public good? This network we inhabit doesn’t have to be controlled by either nationÂ statesÂ or corporations.
That ideal may be aiming too high, for now, but there are things we can do to level the playing field.
Primarily, weÂ can be much more distributed in the way we publish – the things we say, where we say them and the commercial activity around those conversations. There is plenty of room for a lot of people to make a lot of money producing important information and art at a global scale without having to own all the inputs and outputs for it.
Things like crowdfunding, cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, open licenses, net neutrality and media pluralism policies can all be very effective means of distributing control of the Internet and journalism in the world.
Now that “hate speech” and “free speech” are being used as weapons of war we need to re-think what we wanted those terms to do for us in the first place. They are losing their meaning, and people are getting hurt.
We don’t like everything we can see and hear now that we’re all connected, but even so, the Internet should not be used as a weapon.
More urgently, peopleÂ are being punished for speaking out.
Bloggers and journalists are being jailed and killed, and the perpetrators carry on with impunity. This is the greatest weapon authority has in its arsenal today, and in many places it is becoming very effective in applying it.
Impunity breeds very dangerous conditions that easily snowball into fear. Exposing it relentlessly, as Joshua Oppenheimer did with ‘The Act of Killing‘, is the first step. For that, we need professional journalists who can operate safely.
Some of the solutions above are more mature than others. But we mustn’t lose sight of the opportunity and what we’re trying to achieve.
The enemy here is not the government or capitalism or God. It’s not social media, either.
There is no enemy.
In our ongoing pursuit of independence as individuals, communities and countries we tend to seek power through tools – tools that are physical, religious, economic, political or a combination.
The trade off where we authorize power to act on our behalf in exchange for reachingÂ beyond our individualÂ capabilities creates room for our darker nature as humans to exert itself.
A little too much of that has crept into the Internet.
While I prefer to avoid seeing the world as a series of boxes and battle lines, there are many who are playing a zero-sum game on the Internet and doing a lot of damage in the process.
We’ve created this situation. And we can fix it.
I choose to believe that Bruce Schneier is right when he says,
“We have reached “peak indifference to surveillance.” From now on, this issue is going to matter more and more, and policymakers around the world need to start paying attention.”
But let’s not kid ourselves. It won’t fixÂ itself. History is proving the opposite to be true – thingsÂ will get worse if we fail to actively support policies of openness.