Despite the rapidly expanding collections of information, the nation’s information is at risk. As more of it comes in digitized form and less in printed or verbalized formats, it can be corralled and viewed more easily by groups or institutions concerned with only their interests. Charging for access and the flow of information can be increased thanks to software. Today, lobbying effectiveness can influence laws and regulations to an extent not seen since the wild political days of the Gilded Age. Despite where information physically sits, if in digital form it can be easily changed, added to, or constrained. That capability was never possible with printed materials or shared conversations, which were always dispersed across the vast North American continent. The benefits of having much information in digital formats are enormous and will not be denied, but as a nation Americans need to recognize that they are confronting a new world requiring informed action.
Today’s information crossroad is about the future of the Internet. It is the base upon which so much information created and used by people will continue to rest. Massive deployment of sensors communicating with each other, people, computers, and other devices, already under way, will be another, what is cutely being called the Internet of Things (IoT). There are many issues before the American public, but the central ones concern security, privacy of information, and to what extent the Internet should be an “Information Highway” on which everyone can travel.
But why involve the public? Google knows what it wants to do. The Federal Communications Commission has a solid record of making information accessible as every new technology has come along. From time to time, Congress updates copyright and patent laws to account for new technologies, most notably software. Even the slow-moving federal court system has supported the notion of free flow of information and it appears every new information-handling technology ends up generating litigation for it to adjudicate. Most recently, in 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court judged that police could not access data on a private cell phone without a search warrant. Academics in many disciplines are extensively engaged in the broader conversation, producing a flood of books and articles that make it difficult for one to keep up with. So, why not let the experts deal with crossroad issues in their own ways?
The problem with relying solely on these various groups is that the issues before Americans involve 100 percent of the public and (for those roughly over the age of 7) activities they perform frequently each day. Their issues deal with the fundamental right to access and use information. These are essentially the same ones the public faced in the last quarter of the eighteenth century when they set up the United States. The central issues involving the Internet—data security, privacy, and net neutrality—have now been before the public for over two decades. But Americans have not become as engaged with them as they should. They ought to do so now, as these will need to be addressed head-on over the next several years. Recent evidence of the Trump administration putting these at risk is more an intensification of a debate rather than the introduction of a new conversation. But that intensification teaches us that to ignore these issues is to invite a circumstance when it may become too late to reverse course. There is always someone who wants to deny you the freedom to create, collect, and use information. Today is no different than 1917 or 1817.
Americans could well see information denied to them, they will probably see a sharp increase in what they are charged for what they access, and they may be sufficiently misinformed so as to threaten, or possibly weaken, their democratic way of life. That is why everyone needs to form opinions on these three issues and to take group and individual actions in line with their conclusions. Crowdsourcing technologies combined with social media software practices demonstrate that individuals can influence the course of events to a far greater extent than in earlier times. That was a lesson of the Arab Spring of 2011, which has frequently been called such things as the Twitter Revolution and the Facebook War.
American history is full of examples of threats to data security, privacy, and—the newest for a quarter century—net neutrality. The security of one’s banking and medical records stored in computers has been the subject of controversy, vigilance, and protections granted and denied since the 1960s. We are going through a period of unprecedented attacks on data security through hacking, after a period of relative calm in the early 2000s. Privacy has been with us since the dawn of the United States. Even in the Constitution, public leaders had to include language to protect invasion of American homes and papers. Net neutrality—the idea that everyone should have equal access to the Internet—is another manifestation of ideas such as freedom of the press, access to newspapers and books, and the ability to send mail to anyone uninhibited by special prices, censorship, or prejudicial to targeted groups. The history of American information suggests that openness and access has to be constantly earned and, in fact, re-earned. The historical record is full of ugly fights, but more successes than failures. It also tells us that we cannot leave it to experts or officials. American society as a whole must engage in the debate, take sides, and vote in favor of their positions.
Headline image credit: Unnamed by Seth Schwiet. Creative Commons Zero via Unsplash.