Sunday, March 9, 2014

The view through the window

Remember when the Internet was hailed as a glorious new window on the world?

It would shed light on corruption, democratize dictatorships, make information and education more accessible, and generally move us toward a more open and enlightened world.

"Information wants to be free," we said. Washington and Ottawa spoke of "open government."

We ignored the fact that windows allow people to look in as well as out.

First we had marketers of products, in collusion with corporations like Google and Facebook, watching and recording our online behaviour --- the search terms we use, the videos we view, the products we buy, and so on --- in order to target us with their advertising.

Many, perhaps most, found that an annoying but acceptable trade for the services provided in return.

Now we have government security agencies in most developed countries monitoring the details of their citizens' lives, sharing that information with each other, and aggregating it all so that individual profiles may called up whenever needed, for whatever purpose.

Phalanxes of lawyers are employed to argue that all of this is legal, a diversionary tactic that obscures the discussion about its necessity and justification.

Public debate has already been chilled as people self-censor, wondering whether their comments will put them on a list somewhere. You are not being paranoid when you are actually being watched.

Not long ago, we would have expected this from the rulers of Zimbabwe, China, North Korea, and other repressive regimes, but not from countries in "the free world."

Now trust, along with privacy, has disappeared.

Here's looking at you, kid.