The NSA’s terms of service: click here to agree and use the Internet

You’d think these guys could talk once in a while?

At a panel discussion once, a founder of the Internet made an assertion that’s stuck with me ever since: if information is power, he said, then the public should have more of it than the government. Now, clearly the guy has an anarchistic streak in him (he is a founder of the Internet after all), but the idea has a place in a modern indirect democracy, where the public elects leaders to govern while we go on with our lives. If the public is part of the equation of keeping government power in check, and if in the 21st Century information is power, then surely there needs to be a balance of information between the public and government.

Obama has made this a policy all along, putting in place a ton of open data initiatives that keep the government transparent while allowing the public to find new and innovative uses of otherwise dormant facts and figures. But he’s stumbling at a key point, assuming firstly that people who’d do wrong to the US would be operating on a part of the internet that’s easily accessed, and secondly that the public wants to be as transparent as we want the government to be. I get why he’d think we want to be transparent: he hasn’t really been told that assumption is wrong before. During the campaign, his team drilled so far into the online lives of potential voters that Facebook slapped them on the wrist more than once, but let them carry on all the same.

It’s an incorrect assumption, as we’ve seen recently, but the only thing wrong is the assumption. Realistically, web companies do the same thing as the NSA, all day, every day, with far less altruistic intentions. Facebook has proven time and again, the public is not unwilling to have data mined once it’s public, but we must be directly involved in the conversation around such a program’s intended use and boundaries. I’m not talking about Congress helping to make those decisions. We all have to have a direct voice and craft a real set of expectations around what defines overreaching on the part of the government, and what’s permissible.

We may never know for sure, but I feel this is the spirit in which Snowden leaked the documents. He wanted to make sure we all read the terms of service before we created an account.

There is a valid argument here about the chilling effects of any sort of spying whatsoever, and I do agree it’s frightening to think of people who are afraid of communicating or publishing information because of a potential misuse by someone who gets a hold of it. But that hasn’t stopped people on a personal level, living their lives online. And I believe that if there is true transparency as to the nature and extent of any government data gathering initiative, those chilling effects will be minimal. What adds far more to a chilling effect is the way the government then deals with a case like Snowden, charging him with espionage when that’s exactly what he’s accusing the government of. Snowden is like an information hacker: at some point the government realized we had more to learn from hackers and offered them opportunities to help us rather than prosecuting them. How can we make the same thing happen for Snowden?

To me the craziest thing about the whole leak scandal is not the contradictory messaging coming from the White House, or even that the NSA knows what my girlfriend texts me to pick up from the grocery store. It’s the reaction I got from friends abroad, most of whom live in countries that are not very far removed from dictatorship or some version of it. While we in the US are outraged…they shrug. It’s not that it doesn’t bother them, they just accept it as a fact of life and they move on to more pressing issues affecting their quality of life, like unemployment, poverty, health care, education, on and on. It’s not ideal, but it’s practical.

I hope Snowden finds asylum. I agree with those who say history will view him as a pioneer, and that it’s unfortunate current laws and political climate prohibit us from doing so now.

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