Future of the Internet Symposium: A Challenge to Thierer and Zittrain

There have been a great series of posts on the book here today, and all are well worth pondering on their own terms. I just wanted to throw in a controversial perspective that might lead to more dialogue.

Thierer’s post makes the case for optimism about the future of the internet. To bolster his point of view, he might also have drawn on a growing literature skeptical of the “cyberwar” threat. There’s a transcript of a cyberwar debate involving Zittrain here, where Marc Rotenberg and Bruce Schneier were pretty skeptical of the threat. On p. 41 or so Schneier makes a political economy case that the threat may be exaggerated by those with commercial interests in selling security-related products and services. Glenn Greenwald’s take on cyberwar is more caustic:

In every way that matters, the separation between government and corporations is nonexistent, especially (though not only) when it comes to the National Security and Surveillance State. Indeed, so extreme is this overlap that even [Bush’s Director of National Intelligence] McConnell . . . told The New York Times that his ten years of working “outside the government,” for Booz Allen, would not impede his ability to run the nation’s intelligence functions.

That’s because his Booz Allen work was indistinguishable from working for the Government, and therefore — as he put it — being at Booz Allen “has allowed me to stay focused on national security and intelligence communities as a strategist and as a consultant. Therefore, in many respects, I never left.” As the NSA scandal revealed, private telecom giants and other corporations now occupy the central role in carrying out the government’s domestic surveillance and intelligence activities — almost always in the dark, beyond the reach of oversight or the law. . . .At this point, it’s more accurate to view the U.S. Government and these huge industry interests as one gigantic, amalgamated, inseparable entity — with a public division and a private one.

If we take Greenwaldian concerns seriously (as apparently the Cato Institute has), it’s vital that we get objective analysis of the cyberwar threat from those without a commercial interest in its being either exaggerated or downplayed. But it would also be good for Thierer to acknowledge that the type of strict divide between public and private that is the premise of his final paragraph really doesn’t exist. Privacy laws are so easily circumvented that government will almost always have some access to data collection about individuals by corporations.

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