It’s tough to remember sometimes, but it wasn’t so long ago that we had to settle dinner-table disputes about arcana by turning to old-fashioned books instead of Google. Therefore, what we wistfully refer to as “the early days of the internet” wasn’t that long ago, either. “The internet is this remarkable, young thing,” said Jonathan Koppell, who is dean and professor of the College of Public Service and Community Solutions at Arizona State University.
He was speaking on Thursday, Feb. 23, in Mexico City, at an event called “Will the Internet Set Us Free?” Hosted by Future Tense—a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University—the event offered an opportunity for speakers from both the United States and Mexico to reflect on a tension at the heart of the internet today: Whose interests does it benefit more—the people’s or the government’s? Koppell pointed out that in the “early days of the internet … people talked about it as if it was a separate place.” But what happens online has both positive and negative real-world effects, and is in turn affected by real-world events, as we’ve seen again and again.
When governments surveil or censor internet activity, they typically cite national security to justify their actions. In the United States, it comes down to terrorism, while Mexico has had to “face some tough tradeoffs” between privacy and security in the face of drug violence, said Andrés Martinez, editorial director of Future Tense.
Katherine Mangu-Ward, a Future Tense fellow and the editor in chief of Reason, believes that in the United States, at least, “that tradeoff right now is so far skewed toward security.” (She also argued that basically any legal intrusion on personal autonomy initially justified on national security grounds will eventually be used to track down “that joint in your dresser drawer.”) Carlos Bravo Regidor, a professor and the coordinator of the graduate journalism program at Mexico’s Centro De Estudios Y Docencia Económicas (CIDE) research institute, objected to the “tradeoff” framing, saying, “when we speak about the ‘tradeoff’ … it feels like a game, like a plus and minus.”
All speakers agreed, though, that the key is for government to rely on institutions that fairly and accurately assess threat levels. In the United States, we already have the institutions to allow and to require judicial review of decisions by the state to gather information, to keep information, and in particular to get information from private entities that hold it currently,” Mangu-Ward said. But “we don’t use those institutions. At this point it’s a very rubber-stamp system.” Koppell agreed, saying, “The question is, can you create some sort of mechanism-embedded institutions that we know work so that it won’t be abused? … I will be honest, I’m skeptical.”
Bravo highlighted the need to have these sorts of conversations even when we trust the people in power. He pointed out that the U.S. surveillance programs were in place long before Trump took office, as was the U.S. machinery to deport undocumented immigrants. Bravo also pointed out that unlike in the U.S. where there might be a fear of the all-knowing state, “[i]n Mexico, we do not have a strong state.” At times at the local and state level, he added, governments have been overwhelmed, or even seized by, organized crime.” That makes trusting in institutions more “problematic,” he said.
During a later conversation, Shane Harris, a national security writer with the Wall Street Journal, pointed out that the idea of an omnipotent U.S. surveillance state is belied by tensions between the Trump administration and its own intelligence agencies, many of whose officers “are nervous about the powers of surveillance, too.” Harris said it remained an open question whether the day would come when the National Security Agency would balk at the legality of orders issued by an overzealous President Trump.
Edward Snowden featured prominently in the evening’s discussion, with Bravo and Emily Parker, a Future Tense fellow and the author of Now I Know Who My Comrades Are, agreeing that his revelations of mass NSA surveillance had done much to erode foreigners’ confidence in the U.S. as a trustworthy steward of the internet. Harris said that the Snowden leaks “pealed back a lot of the layers on the internal mechanisms” used “to strike that balance” between security and privacy,” which provided context for all debates ever since on where lines should be drawn. Harris nonetheless refused, when asked, to call Snowden a “hero,” echoing instead the former executive editor of the New York Times, who instead called Snowden a “great source” when asked the same question. Carlos Brito, a program director at Mexico’s Red en Defensa de los Derechos Digitales, a digital rights advocacy group, volunteered that he considered a Snowden a hero, given the dire need for more transparency “when we find this dark side of the internet.” Because so much is opaque here, he said, “We need to have the data to provide good responses.”
Alexandra Haas, the president of Mexico’s federal anti-discrimination council (the CONAPRED), cautioned that unfettered online speech isn’t always a societal good to be championed, certainly not when the speech is hateful and incites violence against certain groups. In those instances, Haas said, some government interference with our freedoms is justified to protect our citizens, though she also acknowledged that there’s a slippery slope danger in allowing governments to distinguish between offensive but permissible speech and dangerous speech that should be banned. Julio Vega, the director general of the Internet.mx trade association, said companies like Google and Facebook were getting better at policing such hateful speech on their own, and he and the others concurred that the decline of early online anarchist-like online anonymity has been a part of the internet’s maturation.
Another recurring theme from the event was the relationship between business and government when it comes to surveillance—both how the two collaborate, and which one the average citizen should fear more. If she had to pick one, Mangu-Ward would rather Google invade her privacy. “I’m much less suspicious of Google than the government. Google’s sinister plan is ultimately just to sell me stuff.” And she noted that there’s a basic distinction to be drawn between the state and companies, since the latter cannot put you in prison. But this was a point of contention, with Mark Hass saying in a later conversation that “we need to be as concerned about the power of Big Business and Big Marketing Interests … as we are with government.” Hass, a professor of practice at ASU’s Cronkite School and W. P. Carey School of Business and the former CEO of Edelman U.S., said that people are often unaware of “all the data we are throwing out into the universe.” His words echoed something Bravo had said earlier: “Being on the internet always leaves a trace. It’s part of its nature.”
All of that data and all of those traces have to converge somewhere. Dan Gillmor, a professor of practice at the Cronkite School and a Future Tense fellow, argued that we are currently seeing “a recentralization of our communications and our technology”—putting our information “in the hands” of both government and corporate entities. Government surveillance—in the United States or elsewhere—fundamentally requires cooperation of business.
Yet citizens can collectively do good mobilizing behind online data, too, as several of the speakers reminded the audience. During a discussion about transparency, Alexandra Zapata Hojel, a senior researcher at the Instituto Mexicano para la Competitividad (IMCO), discussed a project that she has worked on to bring previously opaque data on Mexican public schools’ performance into “the hands of parents and teachers.” In doing so, she said, “it’s changing daily lives of citizens and the power balance” between authorities and citizens. Another recent IMCO project Alexandra described was the well-known “3 de 3” program in which citizens demand that candidates for public offices throughout Mexico release financial statements identifying their financial holdings, and potential conflicts of interest.
The event also addressed the ways that the internet changes the relationship not just between citizens and the government, but between people. A particular point of discussion was filter bubbles—the way that the internet can cocoon people with similar views. León Krauze, an anchor with Univision based in Los Angeles, told a story about meeting with Obama White House political director David Simas in 2013. Simas told Krauze that “he was particularly concerned how the system of selection and distribution of social networks … was creating these big ideological bubbles”—bubbles we saw in action during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. Krauze expressed concern that the same thing would play out during the 2018 Mexican presidential election: “I am very concerned of this consolidation of these ideological bubbles, and in our case it’s even more complicated because there’s some factors and actors such as social violence.” Zapata agreed, saying, “I want to see an internet where you are more exposed to different points of views.”
But Emily Parker pointed out that filter bubbles have some utility, too. “It’s this exact phenomenon that has made the internet so powerful in authoritarian countries,” she said, because it connects likeminded activists. “If you’re in China, that bubble is really valuable.” Julio Vega also cautioned against focusing too much on the filter bubble problem: “We need not to be so naive to say, oh, social networks are the problem … and if we shut them down, everything is going to be OK.”
Which brings us back again to the early idea—as Koppell nodded to—that somehow the internet is not real life. Gabriela Gomez-Mont, the founder and director of Mexico City’s Laboratorio Para la Ciudad, argued at one point that “The digital space has made us question what we call the real space.” But Parker took it a bit further, saying: “The internet is not a separate universe. It just reflects the world we live in.”