Repeat after me: banks cannot and do not “lend out” reserves

August 15, 2013 § Leave a comment

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Back in December 2012, we were bombarded with a campaign to save the free Internet. We were told that the ITU, the UN’s telecommunications body, was planning to take control over the Web during an intergovernmental meeting. A large coalition of private enterprises, activists and some governments (including the US government) came out in strong opposition to this move.

The story went something like this: the Internet is free and nobody owns it. Repressive regimes (Russia, China and Saudi Arabia were often mentioned) want to take control to make it easier for governments to keep an eye on their citizens. Any change to the current open state of affairs is bad.

The ITU-12 conference came and went, and it became evident that as far as evil takeovers went, this one had been a rather poorly organised one. Nothing changed. The Internet had been saved. As you were.

One of the things that always struck me about this campaign was the assumption that the Internet is free. While it is true that in theory anyone can create their own network and join the Internet, the idea that this makes the Web a free and open space seems to be an illusion.The problem is that we tend to think of Internet governance in the wrong terms. We concentrate on the existing multi-stakeholder institutions that have decision-making power over domain names and protocols as the governing bodies that exercise some level of control over the Internet. But we seldom think of the reality. The Web is more centralised than we would like to believe, few countries and a handful of private companies have a disproportionate amount of power with regards to the existing architecture. This is where the real power lies.

The distributed and open Internet is a worthy cause to support. Information wants to be free, but somebody has to pay for it. So besides the common fear of governments prevalent in online communities, we need to take a hard look at the way in which the Internet has become a sizeable business, and how some few companies command a disproportionate amount of power. These companies no longer respond to self-imposed promises not to be evil, their reason for existing is to make a profit. The NSA revelations have uncovered a public-private conglomerate of gigantic proportions, with the US government and many US-based companies at the centre. Each new revelation has uncovered layers of collaboration that many suspected, but the reality seems to surpass even the worst conspiracy theories.

The PRISM program unveiled collaboration at the service level. Most of the largest Internet services are based in the United States, so PRISM uses that fact by co-opting these companies into allowing surveillance of its users. One PRISM slide boasts that most communications pass through the US, while another chronicles the dates in which companies like Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, Facebook and Skype were added to the program.

However, to me the most surprising (and chilling) revelation of all is XKeyscore, which implies a level of collaboration at the basic infrastructure level that few suspected. XKeyscore is a NSA program that allows intelligence agents to retrieve metadata and content about anything a user does online simply by providing an email address. Unlike PRISM, which relies on the service providers, there are strong implications in the XKeyscore presentation that lead me to believe that the US intelligence services are able to snoop on Internet traffic almost at the basic level. First there is the fact that XKeyscore is not centralised, it consists of a number of 500 Linux servers located around the world.

Then there is the fact that XKeyscore can be used to obtain an amount of data that cannot come from service collaborations.  read more

PHOTOGRAPH: Lee Jackson

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