Sometimes when you aren’t sure what you have to say about something, you should just start talking about it. That’s how I feel about the evolving PRISM story – it’s so damn big, I don’t feel like I’ve quite gotten my head around it. Then again, I realize I’ve been thinking about this stuff for more than two decades – I assigned and edited a story about massive government data overreach in the first issue of Wired, for God’s sake, and we’re having our 20th anniversary party this Saturday. Shit howdy, back then I felt like I was pissing into the wind – was I just a 27-year-old conspiracy theorist?
Um, no. We were just a bit ahead of ourselves at Wired back in the day. Now, it feels like we’re in the middle of a hurricane. Just today I spoke to a senior executive at a Very Large Internet Company who complained about spending way too much time dealing with PRISM. Microsoft just posted a missive which said, in essence, “We think this sucks and we sure wish the US government would get its shit together.” I can only imagine the war rooms at Facebook, Amazon, Google, Twitter, and other major Internet companies – PRISM is putting them directly at odds with the very currency of their business: Consumer trust.
And I’m fucking thrilled about this all. Because finally, the core issue of data rights is coming to the fore of societal conversation. Here’s what I wrote about the issue back in 2005, in The Search:
The fact is, massive storehouses of personally identifiable information now exist. But our culture has yet to truly grasp the implications of all that information, much less protect itself from potential misuse….
Do you trust the companies you interact with to never read your mail, or never to examine your clickstream without your permission? More to the point, do you trust them to never turn that information over to someone else who might want it—for example, the government? If your answer is yes (and certainly, given the trade-offs of not using the service at all, it’s a reasonable answer), you owe it to yourself to at least read up on the USA PATRIOT Act, a federal law enacted in the wake of the 9/11 tragedy.
I then go into the details of PATRIOT, which has only strengthened since 2005, and conclude:
One might argue that while the PATRIOT Act is scary, in times of war citizens must always be willing to balance civil liberties with national security. Most of us might be willing to agree to such a framework in a presearch world, but the implications of such broad government authority are chilling given the world in which we now live—a world where our every digital track, once lost in the blowing dust of a presearch world, can now be tagged, recorded, and held in the amber of a perpetual index.
So here we are, having the conversation at long last. I plan to start posting about it more, in particular now that my co-author Sara M. Watson is about to graduate from Oxford and join the Berkman Center at Harvard (damn, I keep good company.).
I’ve got so many posts brewing in me about all of this. But I wanted to end this one with another longish excerpt from my last book, one I think encapsulates the issues major Internet platforms are facing now that programs like PRISM have become the focal point of a contentious global conversation.
In early 2005, I sat down with Sergey Brin and asked what he thinks of the PATRIOT Act, and whether Google has a stance on its implications. His response: “I have not read the PATRIOT Act.” I explain the various issues at hand, and Brin listens carefully. “I think some of these concerns are overstated,” he begins. “There has never been an incident that I am aware of where any search company, or Google for that matter, has somehow divulged information about a searcher.” I remind him that had there been such a case, he would be legally required to answer in just this way. That stops him for a moment, as he realizes that his very answer, which I believe was in earnest, could be taken as evasive. If Google had indeed been required to give information over to the government, certainly he would not be able to tell either the suspect or an inquiring journalist. He then continues. “At the very least, [the government] ought to give you a sense of the nature of the request,” he said. “But I don’t view this as a realistic issue, personally. If it became a problem, we could change our policy on it.”
It’s Officially Now A Problem, Sergey. But it turns out, it’s not so easy to just change policy.
I can’t wait to watch this unfold. It’s about time we leaned in, so to speak.