Samiz-data: Does an Open Internet Need to be Out of Control?

Glenn Greenwald has recently criticized Mike McConnell for outsourcing internet surveillance to corporations. As Greenwald relates, McConnell “went from being head of the National Security Agency under Bush 41 and Clinton directly to [consulting firm] Booz Allen, one of the nation’s largest private intelligence contractors, then became Bush’s Director of National Intelligence (DNI), then went back to Booz Allen, where he is now Executive Vice President.” McConnell recently argued that “we need to reengineer the Internet to make attribution, geolocation, intelligence analysis and impact assessment — who did it, from where, why and what was the result — more manageable.” Greenwald worries that such action will essentially make the internet a samizdat-free zone:

This “reengineering of the Internet” proposed by McConnell would almost certainly enable the easy tracing of anyone who participates. It would, by design, destroy the ability of anyone to participate or communicate in any way on the Internet under the shield of anonymity. . . . Think about how dangerous that power is in relationship to the war I wrote about this weekend being waged on WikiLeaks, which allows the uploading of leaked, secret documents that expose the corruption of the world’s most powerful interests.

I share Greenwald’s concerns about maintaining an open internet–and even Microsoft and Google may be on board to some extent. However, I also feel that the solution here should focus more on “immutable audit logs” of what people in power are doing with information on the internet–and not the maintenance (or creation) of “uncontrolled” spaces on the internet.

My worry is that an uncontrolled internet can be as much the servant of unaccountable corporate power as the monitored one that Greenwald fears. According to Raymond W. Baker, hundreds of billions of dollars of illicit financial flows are weakening LDC economies and enriching oligarchs and their cronies. “Dark pools” of opaque financial transactions endanger the global economy. “Financial privacy” often turns out to be little more than an excuse for tax evasion. Uncontrollability, without more specificity, cannot be a policy goal for an egalitarian internet.

To develop that sense of specificity, I look forward to listening to (or reading) the contributions of participants at the conference “Limiting Knowledge in a Democracy” (which I also heard about via Greenwald, who spoke there). The conference description is fascinating:

[F]ree access to knowledge and information are the bedrock of all democratic societies, yet no democratic society can function without limits on what can be known, what ought to be kept confidential and what must remain secret. The tension among these competing ends is ever present and continuously raises questions about the legitimacy of limits. What limits are necessary to safe guard and protect a democratic polity? What limits undermine it? . . .

[I]t is not only governments which impose limits on knowledge and control the flows of information.* Limits and accessibility to information also are affected by political manipulation of the scientific enterprise, by funding decisions, by research communities themselves which decide what to explore and what not to, by the government’s censorship (both explicit and implicit) of the media as well as the media’s own role in controlling or increasing the public’s access to information and, sometimes, misinformation.

As I consider these questions, I also look forward to reading Jennifer Chandler’s work on technological self-help in cyberspace.

*Admittedly, Greenwald would probably counter that the very idea of a distinction between business and government is becoming antiquated in cases like McConnell’s. I see the growing fusion of these entities as one more epiphenomenon of inequality; outsourcing is a way to “rout around” government pay scales that cannot even begin to keep up with private sector bounty.