This morning’s Observer column:
Ever since the internet emerged into public view in the 1980s, a key question has been whether digital technology would pose an existential challenge to corporate and governmental power. In this context, I am what you might call a recovering utopian – “utopian” in that I once did believe that the technology would put it beyond the reach of state and corporate agencies; and “recovering” in the sense that my confidence in that early assessment has taken a hammering over the years. In that period, technology has sometimes trumped politics and/or commercial power, but at other times it’s been the other way round.
The early battles were over intellectual property. Since computers are essentially copying machines, making perfect copies of digital goods became child’s play. As a celebrated trope put it: “Copying is to digital technology as breathing is to animal life.” So began the copyright wars, triggered by widespread piracy and illicit sharing of copyrighted files, which emasculated the music industry and led to the emergence of new corporate masters of the media universe – Apple, Spotify, YouTube and the rest – and the taming of the file-sharing monster. Result: Technology 1, Establishment 1.
The second battleground was the monitoring of network communications. The internet enabled anyone to become a global publisher and to exchange information via email with anyone who had a network connection. And this posed acute difficulties for established powers that were accustomed to being able to control the flow of information to their citizens. Since nothing on the net in the early days was encrypted, everyone communicated using the virtual equivalent of holiday postcards – readable by everyone who handled them en route to their destination. The only difficulty that states experienced in monitoring this unprotected torrent was its sheer volume, but Moore’s Law and technological development fixed that. It became feasible to collect “the whole goddam haystack” (to quote a former NSA director) if you threw enough resources at it. So they did – as Edward Snowden revealed. Result: Technology 0 Establishment 1.
But the biggest battle has always been about encryption…