Sometimes it's possible to be so closely involved with the details of a problem that one misses the larger picture, the broad arc of events that would help to better understand the processes in play.
At first glance, it would seem unlikely to draw connections between the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and current Internet governance controversies -- including the behavior of ICANN, which the NTIA has (for the moment) chosen not to recertify for key Internet functions.
And yet the connecting lines are clear enough. Not conspiracies mind you, but rather a confluence of events that have led to rampant opportunism and the suppression of fundamental rights.
The direct effects of the 9/11 attacks on our culture are among the most obvious.
After the attacks, quickly enacted laws led to broad use of secret "national security letter" demands for personal data, often aimed at Internet services. Millions of U.S. airline passengers are now subjected to x-ray body scans that have been banned in Europe as possible health risks. And our various leaders have touted the utility of torture and assassinations of U.S. citizens and others without trial or other due process.
This is but the short list. And it's apolitical, too. There's scarce evidence that there's any significant light between the operational stances of either political party in many of these regards in the long run.
Yes, the Obama administration has apparently stopped the worst torture abuses championed by the previous president. On the other hand, Obama administration officials now claim the right to target individuals for killing (especially by remote drones) without due process of any kind, based solely on assertions by the executive branch. Sometimes innocent parties are also killed by these attacks, and viewed as unfortunate but necessary "collateral damage."
To be sure, governments of all stripes have conducted assassinations throughout history, nearly always under the banner of "what's good for the country." The failed attempts to kill Fidel Castro are an open secret. We can be reasonably sure that there have been various other targets over the years, some "successfully dispatched" -- and some not.
While so much of all this is publicly framed (when mentioned at all) in terms of national security, the pervasive distorting effects of money on the process cannot be overestimated.
Almost exactly half a century ago, President and former General Dwight D. Eisenhower coined the term "military-industrial complex" to describe the influence of money over the military and associated national security decision making.
All these decades later, those influences are stronger than ever, and have now extended themselves directly into Internet affairs.
For example, the purchase and deployment of airport body scanners has taken place on a massive scale with virtually no evidence of their effectiveness nor safety, but clear indications that the enormous amounts of money involved served to enrich not only manufacturers of such devices, but some individuals associated with DHS as well.
An ongoing drumbeat for a government power grab over the Internet in the name of "cybersecurity" is another case in point. We see government security interests (e.g. agencies whose portfolios are basically to spy on communications to the greatest extent possible) and the "Internet security industry," together seeming to be creating an unholy alliance aimed at turning the Internet into a combination totally surveilled environment plus money printing machine for the giant entertainment behemoths.
The extent to which these forces are willing to go is exemplified by a classified (but safe to say, rigged) "power system cyberattack demonstration" reportedly used recently to try scare members of Congress into supporting aggressive cybersecurity legislation. I say "rigged" because virtually all such demonstrations are by definition designed with a single outcome in mind, practical probabilities be damned. Anyone who has set up demos to try convince anyone about pretty much anything knows how this works. I've been there. You may have been there as well. And while we can all agree that SCADA control systems need major security improvements, it's also true that the current government cybersecurity push is replete with far more expansive motives.
But the connections don't stop there. Once we've accepted the post-9/11 concepts that "due process" and protection of innocents are no longer a priority, it becomes enormously easier to understand much else going on with the Internet today. When trials and the Fourth Amendment -- including search warrants -- are seen by authorities not as protections, but as hindrances, the race to the bottom seems assured.
The criminalization of copyright violations (which in the past have generally been considered to be a civil matter) is a dramatic example.
The scope of enforcement efforts in this regard have become breathtaking. Domain names are seized and shut down by the U.S. around the world -- without trial -- by leveraging the obsolete DNS (Domain Name System) and ICANN complicity -- often obliterating innocent sites in the process. Unfortunate collateral damage.
Major international file-sharing sites are shut down based on copyright accusations, not trial determinations, cutting off vast numbers of innocent users from their data without recourse, with governments attempting to ridiculously invoke those sites' terms of service as an excuse. Unfortunate collateral damage.
Fears of child porn are disingenuously exploited to mandate vast personal activity data retention systems for governmental retrospective analysis, often without even a formal search warrant being required. Unfortunate collateral damage.
Vast efforts are engaged to pass website and search engine censorship and micromanagement legislation such as SOPA/PIPA -- suppressed for now but certain to reemerge in some form, designed to enrich traditional content owners at the cost of trampling free speech across the Net. Unfortunate collateral damage.
Merely linking to sites that may contain copyrighted materials without permission becomes criminalized, resulting in international criminal extraditions that in the past would have been solely in the civil court realm. Accused copyright violators treated like mass murders. Unfortunate collateral damage.
ICANN plows forward with their extortionist scheme to enrich the anointed "gold rush domainer" domain-industrial complex with a plethora of new top-level domains (gTLDs) -- regardless of the massive confusion and expenses this causes to the vast majority of the Internet community -- and appears poised to endorse further global expansion of using the DNS as a "no trial necessary" copyright enforcement and free speech suppression mechanism. Unfortunate collateral damage.
This is all our fault. It is our responsibility. We have permitted the purveyors of fear and greed to corrupt our legal system and now the Internet as well. We are smiling and nodding blankly as they forge the shackles binding us to their wills.
Responsible measures against terrorism are warranted. Reasonable enforcement actions to protect legitimate copyright concerns and help prevent the exploitation of children are appropriate.
But we can no longer permit our entire world to be warped by those parties who are themselves exploiting fears of terrorism, fears of "cyberwar," and outright copyright greed.
In the realm of the Internet at least, there are some obvious actions we should be taking to stop the ongoing decay and set a course toward a better future.
Government attempts to monitor and control the Internet in the name of security must be heavily scrutinized and minimized, particularly ongoing operational involvement (as opposed to research, development, and specific incident responses) by DHS or NSA in these areas. Government recommendations would be welcome -- government dictates are not.
Attempts to use copyright and child exploitation concerns as excuses for broad Internet control, monitoring, and censorship regimes should be soundly rejected. Not only will these be ineffective at actually stopping the targeted behaviors, they will do vast damage to free speech generally around the world.
The existing DNS system should be replaced over time by secure and distributed addressing systems not subject to preemptive and unilateral government attempts to treat them as blunderbuss weapons and often internationally extralegal copyright enforcement mechanisms.
Criminalization of mere Internet linking should cease. Search engines must be assured autonomy of their search results.
ICANN's current gTLD expansion plan should be halted. A new, purpose-built international organization (not an existing organization with political baggage like the UN or ITU) should be created to supplant and replace ICANN functionalities and responsibilities, with an eye toward what's best for the entire Internet community and the broader global community at large.
That's enough to get us started.
Not only in the wake of 9/11, but particularly since then, we have allowed our legal and technical systems to be usurped and perverted by forces allied against free speech and due process, in the name of power, control, and greed.
And through our acquiescence in these travesties, we are increasingly all becoming "unfortunate collateral damage" ourselves.
It's time to say that enough is enough.
The rape of what made us great ends now.