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A year after Snowden, tech firms must get their houses in order to Reset the Net

Tech companies want us all to reset the net. Reset the Net

When you go online today, you are likely to encounter the Reset the Net campaign. Exactly one year after the first revelations from Edward Snowden about NSA spying, the campaign is designed to mobilise organisations and individuals to resist government mass surveillance.

The organisations involved, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Google and Reddit, want us all to take part in a “Thunderclap” – a boom intended to resonate through social media platforms, promoting an anti-surveillance message.

We’re also being offered The Privacy Pack – a selection of software and tips tailored to common computers, phones and tablets that, thankfully, “literally anyone can use”.

Websites and the developers of mobile apps are urged to integrate encryption software into their services to better protect user data.

Older and wiser

The past year has thrown up some real questions about our expectations about privacy online and the extent to which we accept government surveillance. A certain antipathy and scepticism about going through conventional political channels to bring about change in this context has emerged, which arguably signals a failure of those elected to represent us.

Unlike February’s The Day We Fight Back, which focused on putting pressure on Congress to make changes, Reset the Net is, in Edward Snowden’s words, an opportunity to turn “political expression into practical action”. He argues that this is an initiative “to protect our universal human rights with the laws of nature rather than the laws of nations”.

Look who’s talking

It is perhaps questionable whether this campaign offers a real solution, despite the big names involved. There are more than 2 billion people online and an awful lot of them will have to install encryption and privacy tools for this campaign to have any meaningful impact on mass surveillance programmes such as Prism. It may well be that Reset the Net will be the very thing it doesn’t want to be – a public pressure movement rather than a practical solution.

It’s also interesting to see the campaign neglecting to address the role of the private sector in hoovering up our data in the first place. The relationship between internet giants like Google and the US intelligence community remains ambiguous so their advice about locking out spies might be a little hard to swallow. Prism couldn’t exist without the sea of personal data that these corporations collect and redistribute hourly as part of their commercial activity.

The biggest irony, of course, is that we’re being urged to spread the word about Reset the Net and privacy abuse on Facebook – one of the most prolific providers of personal data to the NSA. This is particularly significant in light of the announcement last month that Facebook’s new mobile phone app will allow the corporation to listen to our phone calls in order to “improve user experience”. Looking critically at the private sector is as important as oversight of the NSA but it has been overlooked by this campaign.

Beyond software updates

With Reset the Net, we are once again being offered a technological solution to what is at heart a political problem – how we balance the often conflicting demands of personal privacy and national security.

It’s exhilarating to witness and participate in online social movements that can bring about real change. The successful campaign against SOPA and PIPA shows how well it can work. These two bills, proposed in the US, sought to introduce prison sentences for accessing pirated content. Websites linking to others that hosted copyright-infringing content were also threatened with action, so Reddit and Wired got on board. The petition associated with the campaign attracted ten million signatures and the bills were eventually dropped by lawmakers.

The action taking place today is certainly evidence that governments will need to be much more responsive to public attitudes to surveillance, a year after we first started to worry about it. But the private sector plays a role too. At least some of the companies involved should probably acknowledge that if they want us on board.

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