Earlier this month, Ronald Deibert spoke about the future of the Internet, post-Snowden, in a talk sponsored by Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society. Deibert, who has followed the development of cyberspace for the past 13 years, finds that it is changing more rapidly than ever—and not for the better. According to Deibert, the Snowden revelations are amplifying pre-existing tensions in the battle over Internet freedom, and will continue to accelerate some worrisome trends. Deibert’s prognosis for the Internet is grim. He argues that it’s too late to roll back the tide of state surveillance, and that the only way out is to beef up independent agencies—like the one he directs in Toronto—that will watch the watchdogs in government. It is an interesting idea, but Deibert does not explain how these agencies will maintain any clout in political systems designed to silence them. Below is a partial transcription, and the video of the talk.

—Sally Mairs

Deibert begins by placing the Snowden revelations in the context of state surveillance, and describing how they emerged in the wake of two recent, fundamental cultural shifts. First, the rise of social networking, cloud computing, and mobile phone use has significantly increased the amount of private information the public entrusts to third parties. Second, the post-9/11 empowerment of law enforcement and intelligence agencies in the U.S., and the shift of state surveillance inwards towards society.

At the very same time that we're in the midst of turning our digital lives inside out, the world's most powerful surveillance industry is turning inwards on all of us; a surveillance machine who's overarching intention is to shield itself from public scrutiny, to barely acknowledge it's own existence, to operate in a cloak of secrecy. I think that's profound and that we've not yet had the proper conversation in Western society, in global society, about the proper balance between surveillance and privacy.

Deibert argues that the repercussions of the Snowden revelations are bad for "the Internet, democracy, and human rights." He outlines a number of these consequences, including the increased nationalization of cyberspace as well as a growing normative support for domestic surveillance policies.

Over time we've seen a growing number of countries put in place Internet controls. Fifteen years ago, there were maybe a handful of countries—China, Saudi Arabia—now there are more than forty of them. We've seen many impose borders, firewalls, and censors to exert greater state control. We've essentially seen a normalization of Internet censorship practices. And the technical means of control are complemented by a thicket of regulations applied to cyberspace. New stifling laws are being enacted; governments are arresting bloggers, tweeters, etc., and criminalizing access to web content. . . . In light of the system the NSA has set up, it will be hard to argue that such laws are unjustified or excessive.

Deibert also discusses what he dubs the “cyber-security arms race,” and notes that the spread of surveillance software enables the world’s oppressive regimes to target opposition groups.

As cyber-security needs have grown, a massive industrial complex has mushroomed to service and profit from them. . . .Products that provide advanced de-packet inspection, social network mapping, cell phone tracking, computer network exploitation—essentially advanced spyware—are being developed by U.S., Canadian, and European firms and marketed worldwide, mostly to regimes who want to use it to focus on isolating, identifying, and disabling opposition groups. And that market really knows no boundaries. . . . After the Snowden revelations, will any of these countries be willing to accept our self-serving moralizing as any kind of meaningful constraint?

What can we expect to see next?

First of all, we're going to see a magnification of what's already happening around nationalization of controls, but also a growing arms race in cyber space that could have some very dangerous, unpredictable consequences. I think this is bad for NGOs, bad for opposition groups, bad for human rights, and very bad for digital humanitarian projects, which I think are being undertaken without full understanding of the risks they face in a lot of these contexts. Most importantly, I think this portends the end of an open Internet. People have been talking about balkanization of the Internet for some time, and we are going to see that process really accelerate.

Despite this bleak forecast, Deibart does note that recent NSA revelations have provided an opportunity to think critically about cyberspace and security.  

One of the things I've been doing is trying to advocate for is a deeper understanding of the philosophical roots for liberal security. I think we need to reach back and understand those roots, shore them up, and support this vision. This model as a whole actually has roots that go back to Ancient Greece, the Renaissance and the founding of the United States of America…We need to wrap all this up in a narrative and remind ourselves about some basic principles that stem from that tradition like: mixture, division, restraint, and oversight.

Deibert advises us to strengthen mechanisms that oversee bodies like the NSA.

People say we need to get rid of surveillance, but I think that's impossible now. We’ve gone so far down this path where we secrete so much data on a daily basis that is emitted and shared with third parties somewhere, that we can never turn the clock back on that. And frankly I don't think it’s even desirable because we depend on it for so many useful things. The critical entry point in my opinion is around oversight. We have to be able to have assurance that whatever is being collected is being collected with someone watching. That’s why when people talk about the privacy-surveillance debate, I say the privacy issue is the wrong focus. The focus should be on the potential for abuse of unchecked power. . . .

I think universities have a special role to play. We are custodians of the original Internet. It’s from the university that a lot of the original characteristics of the Internet emerged. So we need to build more interdisciplinary centers like the Berkman Center, like the Citizen Lab, that have as their mission to lift their lid on all of this using mixed method approaches, and act as independent, credible voices based on empirical research that will call out things that are going on that shouldn't be going on.

Watch the full lecture here: