Compare, for a moment, the Internet industry’s outrage against potential government censorship, as they see it, with the seeming indifference to government surveillance. In 2012, major Web sites staged a massive global protest against a law that would have given the government new powers to shut down sites associated with piracy. Yet, as Congress considers sweeping new surveillance procedures over popular Internet companies, with three House committee hearings Wednesday, those same digital activists are largely silent. It begs the question, does this younger, tech-savvy generation care more about innovation than civil liberties?
The “Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act” would give the government broad new powers to collect personal data from telecommunication and social network companies, often without warrant. Provisions in CISPA give legal immunity to companies, including those in social media and search, for sharing information with authorities and also helps them combat malicious hackers. So, unlike the power to shut down Web sites, intrusive surveillance doesn’t represent an existential threat to the Web.
Civil liberty groups, such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), are predictably outraged over both the law and industry’s acquiescence. In response, Facebook justified its support of CISPA in a rare blog post in April 2012.
“We recognize that a number of privacy and civil liberties groups have raised concerns about the bill,” wrote Facebook’s Vice President of U.S. Public Policy, Joel Kaplan. However, “if the government learns of an intrusion or other attack, the more it can share about that attack with private companies (and the faster it can share the information), the better the protection for users and our systems.”
The complicit support is curious, since around that time last year, netizens and large Internet companies staged a coordinated global Web site “blackout” when Congress attempted to pass the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). The bill would have allowed copyright holders and the Justice Department to severely hinder or even shut down sites that “engage in, enable, or facilitate” piracy.
Given CISPA’s legal benefits to private companies such as Google and Facebook, it’s easier to see why the corporate pillars of the Internet haven’t jumped on the outrage bandwagon.
However, it’s not as clear why other major Internet players, such as Craigslist or Wikipedia, who participated in SOPA protests aren’t being as vocal now. Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, who decided to blackout the popular site to protest SOPA, explained to me in an e-mail why CISPA hasn’t inspired the same reaction from this community: “The big reason is the imminent threat of shutting down things we love (like reddit, all of social media, etc.) that SPOA/PIPA provided. Whereas the obliteration of 4th amendment rights to privacy online isn’t as blatant, sadly, so it’s harder to rally around.”
Ohanian’s argument might fully explain the muted response, were it not for other, past mass protests unrelated to Web site seizures. Twitter lit up over a D.C. bill that would have increased the price of smartphone car service Uber. “Wow, a business (Uber) is prevented from lowering its prices.. wait.. what? We live in America, right?” tweeted Digg Co-Founder and Google Venture Partner, Kevin Rose, to his 1 million followers. Within 24 hours, state assemblywoman Mary Cheh was drowning in thousands of angry e-mails, buttressed by scathing blog posts all over the media. “Uber vs. Washington, D.C.: This Is Insane,” ran a headline on The Atlantic.
So, users do, in fact, get angry, but the common thread between SOPA and Uber is an almost parental protection of information and innovation. Privacy is treated like a convenience--nice to have, but not essential.
This principle seems to hold true even outside of the United States. Malaysia Wikipedia officially participated in a country-wide “blackout” protest against a bill that held Web site owners responsible for the slanderous comments of their users. A copycat blackout was held in the Philippines against a law, The Cybercrime Prevention Act, that threatened jail-time over commenters who were critical of the government.
Yet, when South Korea enacted one of the most aggressive anti-privacy laws in recent memory, a ban on anonymous commenting on large Web sites in 2007, the law went through smoothly.
So, civil liberties groups can try to force-feed rage all they want — and they are, as this letter signed by 34 civil liberties groups in protest of CISPA shows. But the Internet community will only rise up when they feel threatened. Their inaction is sending the message, whether intended or not, that privacy is not a priority.
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