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Felix Stalder about the future of the internet . . . : interview by Uschi Reiter

1 November 2013

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Uschi Reiter: With the Snowden affair the Internet as space for surveillance has reached a wider public. This incident and the excitement it caused hasn’t brought about any major withdrawal from the social network Facebook, for example. What impact does this knowledge of control have on the way we culturally act and communicate on the net?

Felix Stalder: As long as there is no real alternative to the ever expanding parts of the Internet, that act as surveillance spaces, the current discussion about the way we should act on the net will remain quite limited. Cryptoparties and such are more symbolic acts. As long as the infrastructure of surveillance is optimised, creating individualised private spheres later will remain a highly complex matter. So it will always be a minority activity.

On the other hand, what we can see already is a shift in general assumptions. Extensive surveillance is considered normal, defending yourself against it naive. In the case of legal actions taken against Google’s data mining, Google justified itself recently by saying that Gmail users can’t expect that their e-mails and private information will not read and analysed (“a person has no legitimate expectation of privacy in information he voluntarily turns over to third parties”).

Uschi Reiter: Encrypting e-mails and anonymisation services such as Tor is more of practise of geeks. Do you think this practise will spread?

Felix Stalder: In mass culture? No. I think that information professionals like journalists, activists and so on will become more careful and pay more attention to the security of services they use. Whereby the issue of security is relative. What resources and methods are used by “attackers” to get hold of the data? Commercial profiling is easier to reduce, because it works with a visible exchange. User-friendliness in exchange for personal data. Whoever is prepared to give up this user-friendliness can easily protect him/herself.

It is already sufficient to change default settings, install add-ons, not accept cookies or use a variety of services and so on. However, providers design this exchange in such a way that the loss of usability has a greater effect than a noticeable direct gain of data protection. In practise this means that most users in the end prefer ease.
Protection against targeted police surveillance is more difficult, in the case of secret service surveillance impossible. And since Snowden we all know that the latter form of surveillance can affect anyone.

Uschi Reiter: Often there is talk about actually wishing for more decentralisation and alternatives in relation to the development of the net. With current requirements for more bandwidth and the fact that Telecoms and Co can’t offer affordable symmetrical connections for households (same bandwidth for up and downloads), real decentralisation was already prevented in the early years of the net when the business with access to the Internet started.

Felix Stalder: In order to create a decentralised infrastructure it is not necessary for everyone to become a provider. For the time being, decentralisation is a question of inter-operability. All decentralised Internet services were once inter-operable in the early days, thus making it possible to change providers. Let’s take e-mail for instance, where this is still the case. When I change my provider I can take my address book with me, because e-mail is inter-operable. When I change my social network provider, then I loose my friends because the services are not inter-operable. Behind this lies a conscious decision by developers and investors. If we want to develop in the direction of decentralisation again, we have to increase the requirements of inter-operability. This requires laws, though, so I am not very optimistic that these will come soon.

Uschi Reiter: One solution could be running your own “freedom-box” from at home as a communication and production infrastructure. How utopian do you think this idea is, or has that ship already sailed? How do you envisage decentralisation or alternatives?

Felix Stalder: Operating relevant infrastructures is a business for professionals. I don’t think it is necessary for everyone to participate in this venture, unless you make it as redundant as BitTorrent did. There it doesn’t matter if one node or provider drops out. What is important, though, is that different providers could engage in competition with one other. It still makes a difference whether an e-mail account is with servus.at or Google, even though with both I expect to be able to access my mails at 3 am in the morning, if I wish to do so.

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