The End of the Beginning – Moving Beyond a Childish Understanding of the Internet and into the Next Frontier of Human Rights

“When I was a child, I spoke like a child, thought like a child, reasoned and acted like a child. But when I matured, I actively stopped behaving and being treated like a child. Currently we see an enigma, but eventually there will be complete transparency. At this time, I only see pieces of the whole, but inevitably I will be able to fully understand what is going on, exactly as I have been fully understood.”

(1Co 13:11-12 paraphrased by Chris Montaño)

Stage 1. “Childhood’s End (1973 – 2013)”

In a recent Harvard Business Review post, Bruce Schneier compares the current state of security on the Internet to a feudal system. I have always liked Schneier’s take on security and privacy. He is a thought leader as well as facile “synthesizer” and communicator. He also has been a rare civilian cryptographer/cryptanalyst that has published several books on cryptography and is respected for his technical work. He recently joined the board of Electronic Frontier Foundation.

In equating the Internet to feudalism, Schneier is talking mostly about IT security and privacy. However, whether intentional or not, I think he is making a broader statement in a quiet manner. I think he has identified an IT reality, but also touched a raw nerve of the realities of a globally, internetworked society. We live with the Internet like serfs lived with feudal lords- in a state where we are viewed as “resources” rather than regarded as individuals with intrinsic human rights.

Imperial, unaccountable, idiosyncratic, personality-driven; feudalism is a system where the masses have little to no legal rights, little to no due process, and virtually no formal institution of political or economic power. Society’s resources may be diverted to the ruling elite and vassals roles are to serve up any and all resources required of us by the imperial. Feudalism is very simple – the masses trade our autonomy for civil structure and protection against chaos.

However, I think that the time is ripe for the next era in the use of the Internet. I think that we are either near or at a tipping point where we will demand that our fundamental human rights be recognized, honored and legally regarded on the Internet. While I consider Ed Snowden’s actions as criminal espionage, the resonance of his claims regarding privacy violations was a “weak signal” indicating forthcoming change in how we are treated as individuals on the Internet.

I surmise that this change is inevitable, because feudalism failed to maintain the social contract in an era of growing knowledge and maturing world views. It resulted in major social problems and was consequently dispatched to the dustbin of history as a rudimentary form of government because it simply didn’t work anymore.

Similarly, over the past 40 years we have been led by companies and the government into an international network of information access. The change was so significant, that it necessitated strong controls to help the world understand what the Internet is, how to use it and become part of the information explosion we are amidst. This was a necessary stage so that we could all reap the benefits of the instant knowledge available for the first time in history.

But we are more mature now. And the current system of surveillance business models which spy on us, repackage and productize and sell the results for outrageous profits will increasingly, not work. The detrimental impacts of concentration of income and wealth in the richest 1% of society cannot be overstated. Simply put, our current model of Internet usage and business no longer works for society. And similar to monarch rule, is destined to change significantly in the next 10-20 years.

Figure 1. Income Growth now Exclusively for 95-99.99 Percentile

Income Inequality

Source: NYT: Our Broken Economy, In One Simple Chart

Stage 2. “In the course of human events…” (2013 – ?)

I have a personal tradition that on the 4th of July, I renew my view of our state by reading the Declaration of Independence. It is a short document and a welcome opportunity to refresh my ideals so that I can face the often times cynical news flow throughout the year. This year, as I read the Declaration of Independence, I was gripped with the perspective that the state of the individual on the Internet is in a near identical situation as the 13 colonies were in 1776. We receive no hearing by the “rulers”, laws are made without authentic consideration of users, we are treated like an information resource to be bought or sold, rather than as persons and given little respect for dignity, privacy, personal information property – let alone legal rights. The colonists found themselves under a form of leadership that wasn’t sustainable. And in response, they worked for several years to develop something completely new.

With clarity and simplicity the signatories stated, “We have grown up. We require you to treat us not only as adults but equals on completely new terms. We are not asking permission but notifying you and everyone else what we are doing.”

There are several points in the Declaration that I wish to emphasize that are relevant to the Internet and our what I believe is our changing role as individuals:

1. Autonomy is a natural evolutionary process that results from maturation.

While we assail feudalism, we need to recognize that for a time, it worked. It served a purpose. But “When in the course of human events…” we grow, we evolve, we understand ourselves and our roles in the world in a more mature manner and wish to exert our autonomy and power. I believe that we have reached the point in the evolution of the Internet where we as individuals will begin to reclaim and assert our rights and autonomy as individuals.

I think this is true, not because of any political or philosophical view I hold. It is based upon the current generation that is dominating the Internet globally. This current generation holds a richly textured, sophisticated technological and societal perspective of the Internet. Having been in the middle of the Internet’s explosion into the public consciousness during the late 1990s, I am truly wowed by their intuitive understanding of how the mechanics of the Internet interact societally. An example of this is the role played by Wael Ghonim in Egypt’s revolution. This generation is truly remarkable and deserves to be recognized as the pioneers they have proven to be in their actions. They are leading this transition into this next era. And as Egypt demonstrates, it won’t be easy. But this transition is part of the natural evolution of society. I believe it is unstoppable. However, I don’t for a moment think it is beyond being repressed and it will certainly be opposed by those who will lose economic and political power.

2. Assertion of the unarguable legality of autonomy, equality, dignity and respect for the individual- you either get this or you don’t.

Our fundamental human rights are not a debatable point; it is how we view ourselves. It is THE super-ordinate value and consequent world view we possess. All that we are as a society and government rests upon this fundamental assumption. We have built our nation on the premise that individuals have unquestionable legal rights of dignity, autonomy and reasonable freedom to pursue our personal growth and maturity [life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness].

The next era won’t discuss whether human rights will be extended to the Internet, it will be about the struggle to assert the human rights we intrinsically hold. There will be no dialog about the fact that we are bestowed with “… certain unalienable Rights, among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. …” (Please note that this is not an exhaustive list, it is a call-out of some important rights among others.)

It is my view that a mature governmental and business perspective must understand this basis of our society in order to have a long-term, viable government or business. Governments that deny this fundamental truth will eventually be rebelled against as the Founders did against their taskmasters. And companies that are not able to grasp and honor this fundamental truth of customers’ rights and dignity will eventually crash, crumble or decay. The best they can do is control the trajectory of the transition and so maintain a legitimate role.

3. It is harder to change than to suffer, but a tipping point is eventually reached.

It is fascinating to read the 18th century equivalent statement that I expect to find in a contemporary self-help book. Apparently, it has always held true that if the data demonstrate a consistent pattern of abuse without recourse or adequate response, there is no other choice but radical change. Companies and governments love our current system. In it, they hold all the cards and all the money, they make all the laws, and they get most of the benefits. I won’t belabor the 99% arguments that others have made so much more eloquently than I could, but I will point out that we are hurtling toward an unsustainable economic and political imbalance. As circumstances continue concentrating economic and political power, societal pressure is building and will eventually drive change. The combination of non-sustainable economic profits and unabated surveillance by governments and companies is driving us toward this tipping point.

It is not only the U.S. government that is grappling with changes foisted by the Internet, Egypt demonstrates that any educated population requires a measure of freedom, order and autonomy. While repression is real and can persist for a long time, ultimately, an open Internet will lead to big changes. Hence, non-progressive governments are scrambling to erect Internet firewalls that edit content that could potentially instill ideas of individual freedom. In absence of active, aggressive repression, the Internet offers an unprecedented channel for knowledge, education and freedom of press. If governmental power is rampantly abused, there will come a tipping point where a rigged legality is trumped by broadly recognized lack of legitimacy. This is a dangerous place to go and I hope we don’t.

What I haven’t seen yet, is the commercial equivalent where individuals begin actively rebelling against their corporate feudal lords. Examples of this could be an anticipated wave of privacy based companies or some form of information co-op whereby individuals band together for network economics and control the flow and payment of personal information assets. There could also be legislation explicitly declaring that content we naturally generate from of our lives is personal intellectual property and therefore covered underneath IP law. That we own it and it may not be stolen or used without our consent. It may be the case where legally, individuals are given special protections to compensate for the resource imbalances between corporations and people. I personally believe that the golden era of personal information arbitrage is over- not because of political or philosophical ideology, but because all economic profits eventually trend to zero. Smart companies, entrepreneurs and investors recognize this and may already be starting companies and adjusting their strategies, expectations and business trajectories.

4. Autonomy is hard and requires commitment, focused attention and our resources.

As serfs maturing into responsible adults, we have a lot to learn and it is going to be hard. It will require our efforts and resources. This is the weight on the other end of the individualism and rights- they are costly and weighty.

Some will rise to the challenge more effectively than others. Some will be able to develop and lead, and others will cling to what they know because it is easy. But I think that history shows that as we mature and grow individually and collectively, our structures and forms of society must either evolve with us or be swept away. Our choices have never been easy. But a reading of that magnificent document that is the Declaration of Independence, reminds me that that growth and maturity is the struggle that builds strength enabling us to move yet further again.

I am not calling for anything other than recognition and legal enforcement of the fundamental human rights we recognized in our Declaration of Independence, United States Constitution and Bill of Rights. I say this because it is who we are and how we defined our society to be when our nation was created. I think that the founding fathers got it right on the human rights ideal. As we have for the past 237 years, we practice our ideals imperfectly, but guided by the ideal of respect for each person and their unquestioned value. I am simply pointing out that I think that this ideal will eventually embody itself in how we are treated on the Internet and that this change is inexorable and inevitable.