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How to rein in the internet lords: the dangers of feudal security

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
17th June 2013


It’s the Internet lords’ popularity and ubiquity that enable them to profit; laws and government relationships make it easier for them to hold onto power. These lords are vying with each other for profits and power. By spending time on their sites and giving them our personal information — whether through search queries, e-mails, status updates, likes, or simply our behavioral characteristics — we are providing the raw material for that struggle. In this way we are like serfs, toiling the land for our feudal lords. If you don’t believe me, try to take your data with you when you leave Facebook. And when war breaks out among the giants, we become collateral damage.

Excerpted from Bruce Schneier:

“There are a lot of good reasons why we’re all flocking to these cloud services and vendor-controlled platforms. The benefits are enormous, from cost to convenience to reliability to security itself. But it is inherently a feudal relationship. We cede control of our data and computing platforms to these companies and trust that they will treat us well and protect us from harm. And if we pledge complete allegiance to them — if we let them control our email and calendar and address book and photos and everything — we get even more benefits. We become their vassals; or, on a bad day, their serfs.

There are a lot of feudal lords out there. Google and Apple are the obvious ones, but Microsoft is trying to control both user data and the end-user platform as well. Facebook is another lord, controlling much of the socializing we do on the Internet. Other feudal lords are smaller and more specialized — Amazon, Yahoo, Verizon, and so on — but the model is the same.

To be sure, feudal security has its advantages. These companies are much better at security than the average user. Automatic backup has saved a lot of data after hardware failures, user mistakes, and malware infections. Automatic updates have increased security dramatically. This is also true for small organizations; they are more secure than they would be if they tried to do it themselves. For large corporations with dedicated IT security departments, the benefits are less clear. Sure, even large companies outsource critical functions like tax preparation and cleaning services, but large companies have specific requirements for security, data retention, audit, and so on — and that’s just not possible with most of these feudal lords.

Feudal security also has its risks. Vendors can, and do, make security mistakes affecting hundreds of thousands of people. Vendors can lock people into relationships, making it hard for them to take their data and leave. Vendors can act arbitrarily, against our interests; Facebook regularly does this when it changes peoples’ defaults, implements new features, or modifies its privacy policy. Many vendors give our data to the government without notice, consent, or a warrant; almost all sell it for profit. This isn’t surprising, really; companies should be expected to act in their own self-interest and not in their users’ best interest.

The feudal relationship is inherently based on power. In Medieval Europe, people would pledge their allegiance to a feudal lord in exchange for that lord’s protection. This arrangement changed as the lords realized that they had all the power and could do whatever they wanted. Vassals were used and abused; peasants were tied to their land and became serfs.

It’s the Internet lords’ popularity and ubiquity that enable them to profit; laws and government relationships make it easier for them to hold onto power. These lords are vying with each other for profits and power. By spending time on their sites and giving them our personal information — whether through search queries, e-mails, status updates, likes, or simply our behavioral characteristics — we are providing the raw material for that struggle. In this way we are like serfs, toiling the land for our feudal lords. If you don’t believe me, try to take your data with you when you leave Facebook. And when war breaks out among the giants, we become collateral damage.

So how do we survive? Increasingly, we have little alternative but to trust someone, so we need to decide who we trust — and who we don’t — and then act accordingly. This isn’t easy; our feudal lords go out of their way not to be transparent about their actions, their security, or much of anything. Use whatever power you have — as individuals, none; as large corporations, more — to negotiate with your lords. And, finally, don’t be extreme in any way: politically, socially, culturally. Yes, you can be shut down without recourse, but it’s usually those on the edges that are affected. Not much solace, I agree, but it’s something.

On the policy side, we have an action plan. In the short term, we need to keep circumvention — the ability to modify our hardware, software, and data files — legal and preserve net neutrality. Both of these things limit how much the lords can take advantage of us, and they increase the possibility that the market will force them to be more benevolent. The last thing we want is the government — that’s us — spending resources to enforce one particular business model over another and stifling competition.

In the longer term, we all need to work to reduce the power imbalance. Medieval feudalism evolved into a more balanced relationship in which lords had responsibilities as well as rights. Today’s Internet feudalism is both ad hoc and one-sided. We have no choice but to trust the lords, but we receive very few assurances in return. The lords have a lot of rights, but few responsibilities or limits. We need to balance this relationship, and government intervention is the only way we’re going to get it. In medieval Europe, the rise of the centralized state and the rule of law provided the stability that feudalism lacked. The Magna Carta first forced responsibilities on governments and put humans on the long road toward government by the people and for the people.

We need a similar process to rein in our Internet lords, and it’s not something that market forces are likely to provide. The very definition of power is changing, and the issues are far bigger than the Internet and our relationships with our IT providers.”

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One Response to “How to rein in the internet lords: the dangers of feudal security”

  1. H Luce Says:

    When you put your data on someone else’s machine – like I’m doing right now writing this sentence – to a very great degree you are at their mercy as to what they do with that data. There’s an internet ethic that it is unacceptable to make private email public – but that’s a gentlemen’s agreement unenforceable at law, as far as I know, but perhaps if you put a copyright notice ( Copyright 20XX YourName All Rights Reserved etc) on your private email that might help to keep it private. Articles, images, sound, video, and suchlike are subject to the copyright laws – so with inclusion of a copyright notice as above, that will clarify ownership. All user agreements contain the following language as relates to user-owned online content: “XXXX does not claim ownership of any Content that you post on or through the Service. Instead, you hereby grant to XXXX a non-exclusive, fully paid and royalty-free, transferable, sub-licensable, worldwide license to use the Content that you post on or through the Service.” If you want to stop the Service from using your content, you simply send them a letter, in regular mail, certified, return receipt requested (in the US) stating that you revoke this license and give sufficient information as to identify the data for which you revoke the applicable license. If the Service continues to use your data, you sue them. That’s the simple process by which the “Internet Lords” may be restrained.

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