Snowden's Motivation: What the Internet Was Like Before It Was Being Watched, and How We Can Get There Again

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Snowden's Motivation: What the Internet Was Like Before It Was Being Watched, and How We Can Get There Again

The Internet is unique among revolutionary communications media because it was designed for—and has thus far maintained—interactivity. Threats to the open internet we have come to know must be resisted and the core principles of online freedom constantly defended. (Image:

Laura Poitras’ riveting new documentary about mass surveillance gives an intimate look into the motivations that guided Edward Snowden, who sacrificed his career and risked his freedom to expose mass surveillance by the NSA. CITIZENFOUR, which debuts on Friday, has many scenes that explore the depths of government surveillance gone awry and the high-tension unfolding of Snowden’s rendezvous with journalists in Hong Kong. One of the most powerful scenes in the film comes when Snowden discusses his motivation for the disclosures and points to his fundamental belief in the power and promise of the Internet: 

I remember what the Internet was like before it was being watched, and there's never been anything in the history of man that's like it. I mean, you could have children from one part of the world having an equal discussion where you know they were sort of granted the same respect for their ideas and conversation, with experts in a field from another part of the world, on any topic, anywhere, anytime, all the time. And it was free and unrestrained.  

Snowden’s convictions mirror those of many who have adopted the Internet as a second home, and he speaks to the values that motivate fights over issues like net neutrality and online free speech today.

The Internet is unique among revolutionary communications media because it was designed for—and has thus far maintained—interactivity. People can contribute, create their own websites, publish content, and create code as equals across the network. While communication media of the past—like newspapers, radio, and television—generally relied on their audiences to act as passive recipients of information, the Internet upended these conventions. Instead of merely consuming data, the Internet offered millions across the world an opportunity to publish and interact with data, to engage directly with other people across the world, to launch their own websites, and push their own code. It wasn’t just a technological revolution—it was a social revolution that deeply influenced how people interact with news and data.

But there are threats to the decentralized, collaborative architecture of the Internet. We see this often from corporations seeking to control the online experience, whether that is undermining net neutrality, pushing users toward corporate-owned and regulated spaces like Facebook, or the migration from open web to apps.

Edward Snowden highlighted another serious threat to the Internet: surveillance.

And we've seen the chilling of that and the cooling of that and the changing of that model, towards something in which people self-police their own views, and they literally make jokes about ending up on "the list" if they donate to a political cause or if they say something in a discussion. And it's become an expectation that we're being watched.

We couldn’t agree more. As we argue in First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles v. NSA, the First Amendment protects freedom of association. When the government gets access to records of the communications of political and activist organizations and their members, it knows who is talking to whom, when, and for how long. This data trail tracks the associations of these organizations, revealing who is connected to political, religious and social groups of all stripes. The law has long recognized that government access to associations’ private membership lists can create a chilling effect—people are less likely to associate with organizations when they know the government is watching and when the government can track their associations. In short, surveillance threatens free speech.

So what can be done? Even as EFF’s cases against mass surveillance move through the courts, there’s work to be done to harden systems against mass surveillance.

What does that look like? For individual users, that means using privacy tools to protect your communications from snooping eyes. Our Surveillance Self Defense toolkit has suggestions for more private web browsing, emailing, instant messaging, and more.

For those who run websites and applications, we encourage you to join the Reset the Net movement, and commit to hardening your systems against passive surveillance.

CITIZENFOUR is a powerful documentary that is able to put a very human face on the deep technical and legal issues of surveillance. It’s a film that friends of EFF should go see. It’s also a great film to see with a friend or family member who is a surveillance-defender, as few could walk away from the movie with their trust in government intact.

Watch the trailer here:

Disclosures: I serve on the board of directors of Freedom of the Press Foundation, a nonprofit working to champion press freedom, along with filmmaker Laura Poitras, her colleague Glenn Greenwald, and whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Rainey Reitman

Rainey Reitman leads the activism team at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

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