Children of the Internet

published by Eric Mill on

John Herrman perfectly identifies the subtext of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden:

Other internet people didn’t just hear the dog whistle, but understood its meaning: that we should expect to encounter more Edward Snowden, not just in the most obvious places, but everywhere. This isn’t about “hacktivism” or some kind of unified cause. This is about the children of the internet coming of age.

He Came From the Internet

I am, for sure, a child of the Internet. My early identity, in the year of our Internet 1997, was formed in game-making chat rooms on IRC. I never actually made a game, but I spent as much of each day and each night I could online, making and talking with friends, and exploring the corners of an Internet that was still mostly corners.

Because my mother was smart and enterprising enough to buy herself a book on HTML, I stumbled into making web pages. I could not handle how amazing it was that I, a 13-year old kid, could type some symbols into Notepad and show the result to anyone on the globe — without anyone's permission.

There's a lot you can take away from the Internet as a formative environment, but that's pretty much the prime directive that works its way into everyone's brain stem who grew up there. This place is ours. It felt as if the Internet grew so fast that governments and big companies simply couldn't keep up — for a while.

If you internalized that power, these days there's a lot more than NSA surveillance to be disappointed about. Media companies did finally catch up, and now DRM is so prevalent and forceful that it has become likely to work its way into the fabric of the Web, under the guise of inevitability. The Web now competes for talent and money with native, centrally controlled platforms. People now widely believe that that central control is necessary to produce beautiful platforms, because Steve Jobs has said so. RSS, a once hugely successful and pro-consumer decentralized publishing system, is now nearly dead. Use Newsblur.

What makes large-scale NSA surveillance of phone records, Internet backbone data, and Internet company information so gut wrenching are not just the sweeping choices the US intelligence complex have made for us without our input or consent, but that this was supposed to be impractical. We won the Crypto Wars and invented practically perfect encryption — we built DNS and let people turn any hunk of metal in their living room into a server on the Internet — and all of this has been kept cheap and free. The Internet was designed to be a network of people.

For us to be such easy pickings, all tied up in the open databases of a dozen companies, was not in the goddamn plan.

The most obvious thing to do next is preserve the technologies and rights we still have. Make the one upside of PRISM be the death of CALEA, the FBI's stated plan to mandate backdoors in every Internet service.

In the long term, the harder road is the only one. We need to make it so very vastly easier to be in control.

  • In practice, encrypted communication is impossibly hard to do yourself. We should pressure companies like Google and Twitter that offer massive free services at massive privacy tradeoffs to offer paid plans that reverse the trade, and support smaller companies that already do.
  • Identity on the Web is still broken. Creating new accounts the Internet over breeds millions of points of failure when a password breach occurs. The first big attempt to fix that, OpenID, has failed. People are still working on easier identity systems, like Mozilla's Persona. I'm demonstrably excited about turning emails into identity through Webfinger, but it's languished in standards hell. Though Tim Bray is making an admirable attempt today to right the ship.
  • Educate and evangelize. You can still buy a domain name and use it cheaply and quickly, without any technical skills, and without asking a soul. Walk people through it.
  • While you're at it, get them comfortable installing useful browser extensions, and diversifying away from Google where they can.

Those are just a few, and I'm hardly an expert. Here are some. I just like making nice things, and making a world where more people make nice things.

I believe you're going to see a great deal of effort devoted to a more secure, people-owned Internet as a direct result of the emotional impact of Edward Snowden's disclosures. I know it's already refocused me — and there's a lot more children where I come from.