PRISM, equitable exchange and the demise of Google et al

PRISM, equitable exchange and the demise of Google et al
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Since Edward Snowdon, the US whistle-blower, first leaked details of the NSA’s PRISM and related programs on June 7th, two clear themes have emerged within the ensuing debate.

The first is the notion of exchange and the need for this exchange to be equitable.  President Obama and others have sought to justify the PRISM program in terms of the exchange of privacy in return for (increased) security, and this is an exchange that many, indeed probably most people would agree is reasonable in principle.  But as they say, the devil is in the detail: how much privacy is it reasonable to give up in return for how much increased security?

Until the story broke, very few of us knew anything about the PRISM program, and even now have no clear or credible information about the extent of monitoring on the one hand, and the benefit of these activities on the other.  This makes it impossible for anyone to make a reasoned and reasonable judgment about the equity or otherwise of the exchange agreement they have become a part of.

The second clear theme concerns peoples’ awareness of these exchange agreements.  In the case of PRISM and other NSA monitoring programs the problem was that no-one was aware that they were involved in any kind of exchange.  In the context of governments and citizens, this goes to the heart of what it means to live in a democracy, which, to my mind, means that informed consent is surely a key element in this.  Put another way, for a contract to be equitable, both parties to the contract have to be aware of – and agree to – the terms of that exchange.  If the person isn’t aware that an exchange is taking place, doesn’t know and understand what exactly is being exchanged, and doesn’t accept and agree to that exchange, then no matter how beneficial the exchange might appear to be, it cannot be equitable.

And this is why the big Internet companies such as Google, Facebook, Yahoo, AOL, Skype, Microsoft, Apple etc. have been so desperate to deny any knowledge of and involvement in PRISM and the activities of the NSA. They know that they also depend on an exchange between themselves and their users: they provide handy services and in return they gather personal data.  Like the privacy-for-security exchange, in principle this could be an equitable exchange.  But if users don’t know that an exchange is taking place (that “free” doesn’t actually mean “free”), and have no real idea of the price they are in fact paying (the value of the data being taken from them, and what is being done with it), then they cannot actually agree, in the sense of giving “informed consent” to the contract they are being asked to agree to.

Google, Facebook and the other internet players, like the US government, have been relying on people being willing to accept that they are “the good guys” and that “it’s OK, you can trust us”.  When people become aware of the real nature of the exchange the Government has imposed on them, and if this leads them to question and challenge the legitimacy of that exchange, then it is but a small next step to similarly question and challenge the legitimacy of the exchange that Google and the other internet behemoths have involved us in.  These companies are no doubt well aware that other, more equitable balances of exchange can be offered, and that if/when this starts to happen, then their current dominance of the internet could disappear very quickly indeed.