You know what? John Oliver was right: “Apple could put the entire text of Mein Kampf in the iTunes user agreement and you would just be, like, ‘– uh, um: agree – agree’.”
It’s true. We want our Interweb. We want our SpotiTunes. We want our Lolcatz. And, short of immediate bodily harm befalling our beloved family pet or children, we don’t care what we have to do or agree to in order to get it.
And you know what else? You might think it’s funny that he references that infamous German text (and, even though that book still elicits profoundly sensitive reactions here in Germany, you’d be right). But he could have just as easily used The Communist Manifesto or Lolita (ok, maybe that’s a stretch), but he didn’t. He used a German text, and that’s also incredibly relevant at this moment.
The German Government recently said it will not renew a contract with Verizon Communications for Internet Services after it expires in 2015 specifically because “The ties revealed between foreign intelligence agencies and firms in the wake of the US National Security Agency affair show that the German government needs a very high level of security for its critical networks.”
Let that sink in for a minute. That’s Germany, a country who suffered under ubiquitous surveillance and extreme human rights violations from two different totalitarian regimes for more than half of the twentieth century, saying to one of the biggest companies in America “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me; but I will not be fooled a third time – no thanks.” That’s a nation who has made terms like Stasi part of the world’s every-day lexicon telling a world superpower they no longer want to do business with them because they can’t trust them to protect privacy and freedom.
At this point, as you are reaching for that second Bud Light and the next bottle rocket with which to symbolically celebrate the explosion of freedom America brought forth on this day in 1776, you might be asking yourself “but wait – are things really that bad? Sure, Verizon may be sharing personal information from its users with the U.S. government, but it’s all in the name of protecting what this bottle rocket in my hand represents. Plus, I’m not a bad person, so this will never affect me.”
Well, funny you should ask, because, actually, it does.
In a document the NSA released last year, the agency says through its programs, where they are taking data from companies like Verizon and other major Internet companies, that it “touches” 1.6 percent of daily internet traffic. The document also says that the Internet as a whole carries 1,826 petabytes of information per day (One petabyte is equivalent to over 13 years of HDTV video).
Now, 1.6 percent certainly makes it sound like the NSA’s activities and the big tech companies’ cooperation with them isn’t that big of a deal. But, when you consider that last year 30 percent of the world’s Internet traffic was used for viewing pornography, and when you learn that “because large quantities of Internet data is represented by music and video sharing, or large file transfers – content which is easy to identify and dismiss without entering it into systems,” leading people like journalism professor and Internet commentator Jeff Jarvis to say that “the NSA’s 1.6% of net traffic would be half of the communication on the net,” the NSA’s reassurances start to look about as comforting as the fact that the Fourth of July is NOT one of the 11 days in the year when people in the U.S. watch the least amount of Internet porn.
But it was no secret that these companies were harvesting this data in the first place. Talking with friends and family back in the States, I see how comfortable people have become in how they use their personal profiles to enable companies’ advertising algorithms based on their habits. They seem not phased that Google knows what they’re planning to cook for dinner, when they’re thinking about buying a new pair of shoes, and the fact that they have $200 in illegal out-of-state fireworks in their basement.
Sure, maybe to most people that isn’t such a bad thing. Maybe it’s even desirable. As an ex-pat looking-in from the outside, it’s like a never-ending birthday party for government agencies who are daily given the gift of a pre-filled profiles that they can leverage as they see fit to pressure and control any activity seen as a threat (in secret). The ROI on the surveillance state and the 54 “cases of terrorism prevented” seem unsustainably bankrupt without check nor balance.
In addition to knowing your birthday and the fact that you rate The Backstreet Boys as the best band ever, Facebook also knows what your political beliefs are, if you sympathize with a particular cause, and if you are in contact with anyone of dubious character. It’s easy to see why any government would want this information, and in a way it could even be argued that it would be negligent of an intelligence service if they did not try to access this information if it is being stored in the first place.
And that is the real problem, and why we must return to Mr. Oliver’s quote from earlier and face the other reality of why we are so willing to click the ‘agree’ button on those terms of service:
It’s not just that we are a bit lazy, it’s that these big communications providers and tech companies have figured out the power of the terms of service agreement: “if you want to do something evil, put it inside something boring.”
The ‘terms of service’ that Internet companies provide today protect their own interests, and in many ways also, the government’s interests. Most Internet users don’t read them, and even fewer really understand them. And yet, they change all the time to suit the service provider, and rarely offer you the chance to opt out. When you click ‘agree’ you surrender any rights you thought you had and allow anything you do or say online to essentially become the property of the company that provided you with the slick app that you used to share it. There’s probably a data center in Nevada that has more legal right to your ideas than you do.
The root of the problem is not simply that governments have gained access to this data, but that this data exists in such a manner in the first place: to be stored, analyzed and re-used by whomever is the highest buyer (and with copies for sure). Yeah sure, we knew it was being collected, and that the profiles were being built, but have seemed to be willing to put up with it. Especially if it meant that Target could send you a deal on a nice pair of espadrilles just before you jetted off to Miami.
Citizens, and many businesses, are backed into a corner with these perversely out-of-control terms of service. Small businesses, for example, can’t afford not to have a good placing on Google search results, but changes as to how Google rates online presence are now heavily influenced by activity on Google+. If you want to feature prominently on the search engine, you have to accept all the terms and conditions that go along with that. There might be one small condition that you object to, but the all-or-nothing approach of these agreements means you must surrender your freedom of choice just to get the benefits on offer.
It’s time for us to reject these terms of service and work together to build new terms that work for the user, and not the companies that control and monitor how we use the Internet. An Internet of the people, by the people, for the people. A common set of rules that apply to every service or application, written for the user and not the developer or service provider. A set of rules that won’t lock out a user from the whole app if they don’t want to grant the app certain permissions, a set of rules that gives confidence and freedom of choice and expression to the user without worrying about future judgement.
But if the Internet giants won’t stand for your freedom and make these terms of service more transparent and user-minded, who will?
Just last week, in a unanimous decision that many are calling hugely important for protecting citizens against unauthorized use and collection of their personal data, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the vast amount of data contained on modern cellphones must be protected from routine inspection.
Personally I can’t decide what’s more ironic: that 9 highly politically-polarized Americans could agree on anything at all; or that more than a quarter of a millennium after declaring independence from a British government that was seen as overly regulatory, that perhaps America’s greatest hope for continued freedom and independence on the Internet is expanded regulation.
You want independence? You want freedom? You want the right to watch Perez Hilton “80’s celebrities: where are they now?” slideshows in blissful anonymity? Yes? Do you? Then after you’ve lit that final bottle rocket, honored your nation’s founders, and thought about the freedoms that America represents, pick up the phone.
Who you call – your congressman to demand regulation, or your Internet provider to demand a new terms of service – is entirely up to you. And that choice you still have, for now.