Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Why Monopolies Make Spying Easier

These days, America has one dominant search engine, one dominant social-networking site, and four phone companies. The structure of the information industry often goes unnoticed, but it has an enormous effect on the ease with which the government spies on citizens. The remarkable consolidation of the communications and Web industries into a handful of firms has made spying much simpler and, therefore, more likely to happen.

Think back to the late nineteen-nineties, and try to imagine the federal government trying to wiretap the Web. Where to start? There were multiple, competing search engines, including Lycos, Bigfoot, and AltaVista, few of which had much information worth getting one’s hands on. Social networking? Well, there was GeoCities, sort of an early version of Facebook or Tumblr, but that site allowed fake names and didn’t have access to a lot of data. Even getting at e-mail was more difficult in those days, with hundreds of I.S.P.s offering localized e-mail services. AOL was the best bet. Finally, for a government wiretapper, there was no continuity: with firms rising and falling, a wiretap might go down with the company.

In the nineties, tapping the Web, if not impossible, was certainly a pain, which is not to say that the Web itself was better for users. We can concede that Google is superior to Archie-Veronica. But we will always face a trade-off: more centralization and concentration means convenience for consumers, but it also makes government surveillance and censorship easier.

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