The Internet’s precarious state of openness

The state of the open Internet and the role of journalism in the world is more precarious 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 shared at journalism conferences there are troubling events happening in small closed countries [1] and big open ones [2] demonstrating very clearly that 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…

Mapping Media Freedom in Europe…except when authoritative figures and institutions fight back unfairly and even violently to keep us from challenging them.

Some countries have no qualms about killing access to the Internet or parts of it to keep people quiet, something very difficult to imagine for people 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 watch 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 New Restoration 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. Policies that once protected free speech are being used to protect people from being offended. Some are being amended to increase control of the media. The tools of the trade leave journalists and their sources exposed. And the more modern structures of the journalism trade aren’t mature enough yet to replace the more traditional tactics that got us here.[3][4] The transition is happening, but it’s not a 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 plays must fight harder for it as others 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?

1) Technology.

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.

Encryption 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 offers surveillance self-defense tools and how-to’s. It’s a great place to start.

Equally, we should all be better about supporting and embracing open standards on the Internet.

Before Facebook and Twitter we had a distributed messaging standard owned by nobody that made possible a global content network for sharing stuff that people could choose to follow. Tons of interesting, useful and entertaining sources were publishing in real-time through it. It was called RSS.

The new “social” platforms came along and treated openness and sharing as a core activity rather than as a tiny button deep in the ‘About Us’ pages of the web site as publishers did with RSS. Now those platforms dominate content sharing on the Internet.

If you don’t want to learn about open standards (they can feel like nonsense sometimes, so nobody would 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.

2) Ownership.

Why isn’t the Internet a public good? This network we inhabit doesn’t have to be controlled by either nation states or corporations.

That ideal may be aiming too high, for now, but there are things we can do to level the playing field.

Primarily, we 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.

3) Culture.

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, people 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 reaching beyond our individual 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 fix itself. History is proving the opposite to be true – things will get worse if we fail to actively support policies of openness.