Yesterday was a busy day for encryption news. The FBI’s general counsel, James Baker, shot down the findings of a recent report from a Congressional working group on the subject. He argued that “[t]he American people, through their elected representatives, have to make a value determination … The world is moving forward, and doing nothing [on encryption] is an action, and will result in a particular state of affairs.” It seems we’re on the cusp of once more reviving the Crypto Wars.
In addition to Mr. Baker’s remarks, yesterday the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) released a new report examining the many competing policy perspectives in the ongoing encryption debate. The report touches on all the various issues and dynamics at play, and largely echoes the sentiments of the Congressional working group’s report, as well as an earlier report from the House Homeland Security Committee. Despite the similarities across all these reports, I noticed a unique snippet of insight from CSIS worth further consideration:
[T]he debate over encryption is the most salient part of a broader debate on social responsibility on the Internet. The laissez-faire approach of letting companies and consumers do whatever they want is under global challenge. Encryption policy is part of a larger debate on how to define the responsibilities of citizens, companies, and governments in cyberspace. The old free-wheeling Internet where governments were superfluous is ending, but societies have not defined what will take its place. Governments are developing the tools and techniques to assert sovereignty and are reasserting responsibility for central functions like security and law enforcement. They are extending sovereign control using privacy laws, data localization, and requirements for cybersecurity. A central part of this debate is who controls online data and what rules should apply to it.
There’s something to the notion that the “old free-wheeling Internet … is ending.” We’re seeing these issues play out all around us.
Take the “fake news” issue, for example. Companies like Facebook and Twitter find themselves in the eye of a storm of criticism that has become especially intense in the wake of the election. Late last year, Facebook announced it would take greater strides to address contested stories and disrupt the ad revenues flowing to hoax news sources. Twitter now routinely blocks user accounts. Even Reddit, the online bastion of free speech, is tamping down on its historic tolerance for seedy conduct.
As more people have come online, the online community has come to more closely reflect the social realities of the physical world. The problems we experience in “real life” shift to cyberspace, and vice-versa. In a world where over half the human population is already connected to the Internet (including almost 90 percent of Americans) and another billion more more expected to be online by 2020, cyberspace is no longer a separate and distinct society. Rather, it is becoming more intimately fused with our existing world.
In a New York Times op-ed from last year, Frank Bruni discussed the inherent tribalism that has guided the development of human civilization for thousands of years, and argues that the Internet has accelerated the process by which people are herded “into culturally and ideologically inflexible tribes.” I disagreed with some of Bruni’s conclusions, but found his overall analysis to be extremely discerning. In a response piece to his op-ed, I made the following argument:
The Internet thus mirrors society and, by extension, each of us: our preferences, associations, and world views. In a sense, our online tools are just means by which we transpose our lives into the digital realm …
The Internet, at its most basic level, is not simply interconnected networks. Nor is it the fiber optics cables and wires that transmit packets of binary code. It’s not even those simple “series of tubes.” The Internet is us. It is human minds connected to one another with the aid of mind supplementing devices we call computers. …
The Internet—at least the Internet each of us experiences in our own unique way—is simply a reflection of ourselves. We should not be surprised then when cyberspace starts becoming a reflection of meatspace. Nor should we lament it.
The implications of this “mirror effect,” coupled with the broader debates over “fake news,” encryption, and government sovereignty in cyberspace are profound. There was a time when the Internet was seen as a libertarian escape hatch from the travails of a world filled with, as Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow once described them, “weary giants of flesh and steel”—the nation-states and corporations that, in an age of digital interconnectivity, would soon be little more than anachronistic relics.
But Barlow went further, dubbing cyberspace the “electronic frontier.” He was describing the Internet as early 1990s explorers knew it: a vast, untamed Wild West. The early citizens of cyberspace, he argued, would create a new world, free from the constraints of the old. Those were the days of high noon on the electronic frontier. Those days are over.
The rugged individualism and personal responsibility closely associated with early electronic frontiersmen has now been replaced by calls for stringent curation and censorship online. In those days, individuals bore the lion’s share of responsibility for parsing through fact and fiction. This responsibility has now largely shifted to social media companies like Facebook and Twitter, which are increasingly become custodians of content, not just platforms for expression. Competing national interests online beckons states to become more enmeshed in the digital ecosystem. Cybersecurity and encryption are the issues du jour, but it now seems inevitable that states will be playing an increasingly pronounced role in the digital landscape. The reason for this is simply that there are increasing numbers of people on the Internet, which, as Bruni discussed, drives an acceleration of the “mirror effect” online.
As more people migrate to cyberspace, the Internet has quickly begun mirroring the real world. Our day to day experiences and concerns are now merging into the great digital expanse. Criminals and terrorists have also shifted more of their activities online, prompting states to pursue them into the digital realm. And where states travel, so do competing national interests. Surveillance and state-sponsored hacking have become the norm in international relations, and intelligence and law enforcement agencies are now firmly entrenched in cyberspace. The shadow of Big Brother, as Edward Snowden showed us, looms large over online life.
In short, we are witnessing the passing of the Internet’s wilderness frontier days.
Over a decade has passed since Barlow declared the electronic frontier independent from governments and institutions—those “weary giants of flesh and steel” of the old world. Yet we haven’t seen the actualization of those early cyber-libertarian dreams. The Internet, once a wild frontier at the edge of civilized life, has now been enveloped by the laws and norms of the physical world around us.
We should hardly be surprised. Frederick Jackson Turner wrote about this phenomenon in discussing the taming of the American West. The frontier, he wrote, “did indeed furnish a new field of opportunity, a gate of escape from the bondage of the past.” It brought with its opening a certain “freshness, and confidence, and scorn of older society, impatience of its restraints and its ideas, and indifference to its lessons.” But frontiers are inevitably folded into the old societies. New lessons are learned and new institutions emerge, but at the expense of the ever-retreating frontier.
The Internet is just the most recent example. Twilight descends on the electronic frontier as demands for censorship, control, security, and certainty have replaced an ecosystem birthed, as all frontiers are, in an unbounded individualism.
We shouldn’t mourn this. All frontiers close. Human civilization has been enormously enriched by what the Internet has helped us build. Yes, cyberspace has become a more troubled place, but only because there was no stopping the problems in the world of atoms from bleeding over. As with all frontiers, the Internet has morphed into a truer reflection of the society from which it was born. Civilizing frontiers, and discovering them anew, is what humans do.
We must accept the realities of change. The Internet was only ever a reflection of the real world. It isn’t a special realm divorced from the problems and concerns of human society. That is why social media companies will continue rationally responding to the expectations of newcomers to the digital landscape, while appeasing the ever-changing demands of the earlier cyber settlers. Nation-states will increasingly pursue their national interests through digital channels. Indeed, we already see this process underway in many countries, as some court policies that empower citizens, while others opt for repression.
As people and governments move online, their affairs will follow. And as the last remnants of Barlow’s electronic frontier fade away, what remains will be a world we cannot yet imagine.
When it comes to the Internet, the past is prologue.