Home Editorials Online Security Concerns Shouldn’t Enable a Surveillance State – Kimberlee Josephson

Online Security Concerns Shouldn’t Enable a Surveillance State – Kimberlee Josephson

At the 2012 London Olympics, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the World Wide Web, crafted the message “This Is For Everyone.” And at that time digitized opportunities felt limitless. Now, a little more than a decade later, that message might read “This is for Everyone – Pending Oversight and Approval.”

Indeed, tech accountability proposals and high profile hearings with Silicon’s finest were plentiful last year and this year shows no signs of slowing down. Governmental officials of both parties have proven to have a never-ending interest in meddling in online anonymity, as the recently proposed RESTRICT Act shows.

RESTRICT stands for Restricting the Emergence of Security Threats that Risk Information and Communication Technology – the name says it all. 

Essentially, this act grants the Department of Commerce the authority to interfere with any data of any user and prosecute any activity based on any possibility of a threat – and any disapproval for interference derived from Congress can only be brought forth after the fact. If this sounds out of proportion, read it for yourself.

While other proposed bills, such as Section 230, have (wrongly) placed service providers and social media networks as the target for regulation, the RESTRICT Act applies to everyone.

Under the RESTRICT Act, all internet-based interactions and transactions would be subject to surveillance and scrutiny, which is why some have dubbed the RESTRICT Act to be ‘the Patriot Act 2.0.’ Such an assertion, however, is too kind, since the ‘sneak and peek’ approaches that were allowed under the Patriot Act pale in comparison to the constant oversight of online affairs that the RESTRICT Act would enable.

It is also worth noting that the Patriot Act was set to expire in 2005 but, like many government programs, it has been preserved and currently lives on under the USA Freedom Act of 2015. And although the USA Freedom Act had a planned expiration date set for 2020, it is also still hanging on.

It seems unlikely the RESTRICT Act will gain any real traction given its extreme nature, but proposals like these act as prototypes or concept tests for what might come next – and stranger things have happened.

It was just a little over a year ago, for example, when the Biden Administration launched the Disinformation Governance Board, aka the ‘Ministry of Truth.’ Nina Jankowicz, the appointed ‘disinformation czar,’ went viral on TikTok with a revamped (and ridiculed) rendition of ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,’ and backlash quickly ensued as the board was evidently too Orwellian for the American public to stomach. 

The states are getting in on the act too. Take for example the Arkansas legislature’s recent passing of an “online youth safety” bill, which itself mirrors a law which Utah passed last month. 

Arkansas’s Social Media Safety Act, signed by Gov. Sanders, requires all online users to prove whether they are age-appropriate for certain platforms and content, which thereby necessitates the collection of biometric and personal data for ID verification. 

Any online anonymity or semblance of data privacy has been revoked by the state in the name of safeguarding children. Yaël Ossowski, deputy director of the consumer advocacy group Consumer Choice Center, rightly asserts that the government is now poised to be “the final arbiter of whether young people access the Internet at all.” 

Parental ability (and responsibility) to play a part in the digital lives of their children is being delegated to government bureaucrats, and it won’t be long until other state legislatures follow suit. Connecticut looks to be next.

What is truly disturbing about these laws is that they enable government overreach in places that the market has already been providing solutions for online child safety. Concerns over data management and data access have resulted in cyber security’s being one of the fastest growing markets, with lucrative positions for those studying to be information analysts and data scientists. 

As it so happens, none other than Sir Tim Berners-Lee has launched a decentralization project to tackle data rights management. His is one of many initiatives that should be incentivised by user interests and left unencumbered by political interference

Historical and empirical evidence proves that a decentralized economy leads to progress and prosperity, so we should enable our digital economy with the same approach.