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How to understand “The battle for power on the internet” - Quartz

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The place of technology in history

This dance of power, Schneier points out, is governed by a basic principle: New technology benefits the nimble first, but is appropriated by the powerful later:


The unorganized, the distributed, the marginal, the dissidents, the powerless, the criminal: They can make use of new technologies very quickly. And when those groups discovered the internet, suddenly they had power. But later, when the already-powerful big institutions finally figured out how to harness the internet, they had more power to magnify.


Right now, Schneier says, we are at the stage of increasing concentration of power in the hands of governments and large corporations. He attributes this to what he calls a “feudal” model. Peasants used to put themselves at the service of feudal lords in exchange for convenience and protection. Today, we entrust control of our personal data to Google and Facebook and in return they handle the technology and security for us.


In parallel, writes Schneier, both “totalitarian” and “democratic” governments have accrued a great deal of technological power over people. Their interests sometimes align with one another’s, and with those of corporations, and sometimes don’t. When they don’t, ordinary people can get trampled in the conflict.


The effect of accelerating technological change

I take issue with Schneier’s use of the word “feudal,” because it implies that we should see today’s technopolitics as something bad—a throwback to a pre-Enlightenment time. In fact, as he would probably be the first to admit, the relationship between people and their rulers—be they feudal lords, tyrant emperors, elected prime ministers, bank presidents or tech CEOs—has always involved an exchange of power for protection. The conflicts between those rulers have always created risks for ordinary people. (As Schneier also fails to point out, they create opportunities too, when one powerful ruler undermines another.) And the steady advance of technology has always created what Schneier calls a “security gap” between the nimble outliers who adopt a technology first and the established interests that appropriate it later.

This is compounded by how complicated the Terms of Use now are for such services.

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