Two recent events have highlighted both the extreme urgency of the need for internet privacy in the age of Web2 and a way to frame that need as a positive value that goes beyond traditional understandings of what privacy is.
The first: In Nebraska, a 17-year-old girl and her mother are being prosecuted and will be tried – the girl as an adult – for allegedly using a “morning after” pill to induce a miscarriage. A child and her mother face lengthy prison terms for newly invented “crimes,” and it is only possible because Facebook handed over their private messages to Nebraska investigators.
David Chaum, a pioneer in cryptography and in privacy-preserving and secure voting technologies, is the creator and founder of the xx network. In 1995 his company, DigiCash, created and deployed eCash, the first digital currency, which used Chaum's breakthrough blind-signature protocol.
The second: In neighboring Kansas, voters overwhelmingly crushed a ballot initiative to remove the right to abortion from the state constitution, despite the initiative being timed to coincide with a Republican primary and an email sent to voters that blatantly lied about the ballot’s intent. “No” voters included not only Democrats and independents but about 35% of registered Republicans.
Pro-choice campaigners say their victory was in large part because they framed the issue in terms of “bodily autonomy” – persons ought to have an absolute right to control their own bodies.
Each of us, though, has not only a physical body but a unique, personal “body of knowledge” about us consisting of everything we do on the internet. Right now, those informational bodies are scattered and not under our control.
In fact, they are under the control of the tech companies that provide us with “free” internet services – not just social media and instant messaging but emails and searches and online purchases: who we communicate with, how much and how often, what we’re interested in, what we pay for.
All that information is collected and sold to advertisers or political groups or provided gratis to government agencies – from zealous state prosecutors to the National Security Agency. We have no informational autonomy, any more than those of us with wombs have a guaranteed right to bodily autonomy post-Roe.
Read more: The Coming Privacy Wars
Internet privacy in Web2 is a dead letter. And because of the enormous clout of Big Tech in the U.S. economy, the likelihood of any legislation being passed that would change this situation more than marginally is very small.
Fortunately, technology offers solutions in the form of cryptography, both established and novel. It is possible not only to encrypt message content against even future quantum computers but to create decentralized networks that “shred” message metadata such that no one but sender and recipient can identify each other – including the network’s node operators. Searches from within such a network can likewise be anonymous and untraceable.
Helplines for people in need of services such as reproductive health care can be made 100% confidential, as can financial transactions using a currency native to the network. We don’t have to depend on the intentionally weak privacy assurances of Web2 megacorporations or the equally weak security of legislation. We can have positive privacy – complete control of our own digital lives.
With digital pseudonyms derived from an inalienable private key, for example, we can provide organizations with exactly the information they legitimately need – no more, no less – without revealing anything more about ourselves.
And as recent events are showing us, informational autonomy is intimately linked not only to bodily autonomy but to defending democracy. Protected spheres of discourse and debate, like the coffeehouses that 18th-century monarchies were perpetually trying to shut down, have always been critical to democracy’s development and survival.
Truly private, decentralized communications networks that not only encrypt message content securely against even future quantum computers but eliminate metadata in transit can provide such protected spheres in the digital age. Without privacy, there is no true freedom of speech.
Bottom line: If Web3 doesn’t provide every individual with informational autonomy, if it isn’t truly decentralized and democratically managed, it’s just Web2.1 in fancy dress.
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