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After PRISM, Europe Must Safeguard 'Emerging Global Consciousness' (Le Monde, France)


"Today we can consider the information revealed by Edward Snowden and relayed by Glenn Greenwald as the herald of a crucial turning point: the awakening of a global consciousness determined to actively confront the urgent need to regulate how personal data is harvested, stored and used. ...  it is now the task of our old Europe to lay the foundations of a 'Web 3.0' capable of providing a 'responsible, shared digital environment' based on permitting everyone to manage all the information harvested about their Internet use."


By Eric Sadin*



Translated By Talei Lakeland


October 31, 2013


France – Le Monde – Original Article (French)

Up to now, the United States has been the central power in the digital economy. Following innovations and products developed by IBM in the 1960s, which were later expanded upon by Microsoft and Apple, these creations were, at the turn of the millennium, the platform on which the “Internet giants” emerged - Google, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, and so many other companies. These firms were based on a new industrial model: the use of key words to search for information, sell products online, and the setting up of Web-based structured social networks. These were distinct activities that all converged on one strategic point: the harvesting and storage of personal data to be exploited by a multitude of commercial applications.


With continuous growth in the processing power of computers and data storage, combined with ever more sophisticated algorithms, an in-depth knowledge of our behavior has developed relentlessly over the past 15 years. The majority rule of free-of-charge information, on which the global success of the digital economy is based, has led to the large-scale electronic memorization via hard disks and server farms of the everyday acts of an incessantly increasing number of connected individuals.


Through an accident of history, the attacks of September 11 were committed during the still-uncertain formation of these unpredictable yet decisive  technological and industrial developments. It was this radically-asymmetric aggression against the planet's leading power by an “elusive, nebulous group,” that so contributed to putting intelligence operations at the forefront of politics, defense and homeland security policy. Based on a profound, in-depth knowledge of the largest number of people, amid this once-unsorted pile of information, it was now possible to seize on every potential plan for destruction contained within.




We are acquainted with the military-industrial collusion that forms part of the American mindset, which assumes that in the name of national security, a military-business alliance must be forged in order to promote the emergence of powerful techologies. The Patriot Act, which was passed by Congress in October 2001, imposed a new form of more-or-less consensual and discreet partnership, which enabled the interception of data generated by all Internet users from all five continents harvested by large private enterprises.


The tracking of communications, Internet navigation and online shopping, would form the main source of American intelligence, and more broadly, that of most of the world's great powers. This movement has intensified indefinitely, correlating with the incessant upward curve in the sales of mobile phones, smartphones, computers and tablets - and just as many interconnected protocols favoring the never-ending volumes of exponential data generation now referred to as Big Data.

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What successive revelations about the "PRISM" affair exposes is less about the fact that America's National Security Agency is intercepting data from every direction (this is something we have known since the setting up of the ECHELON network at the end of the late 1980s), and more about the dizzying scale of collection carried out according to measures and procedures that often not only break the law, but are to some extent beyond our comprehension.




If, up to now, a disparate conscience in terms of these practices has been manifested in various ways by citizens and associations without encountering an echo to match the gravity of what's at stake, we can consider the information revealed by Edward Snowden and relayed by Glenn Greenwald as the herald of a crucial turning point: the awakening of a global consciousness determined to actively confront the urgent need to regulate how personal data is harvested, stored and used.


The first clear sign of this is the desire expressed by Brazil - at the initiative of President Dilma Rousseff (as a result of these revelations) - in partnership with emerging nations and the other members of the BRICS, to modify the rules of Internet governance that are now under a decidedly American grip. This is a project that looks to be the object of a fierce geopolitical struggle in the coming months.



However, that is not to say that a multipolar regulation of the Internet, which would involve China, Russia or other countries whose draconian regimes are in varying degrees hostile to freedom, would be any more transparent. We can safely bet that in the long run, the contrary would happen. In this regard, it is clear that the asylum offered Edward Snowden by Russia is part of an effort to openly signal a new balance of power in the complex geopolitics of data and the Internet, rather than an effort to equitably regulate the practices of intelligence agencies.




I believe that from now on, it is up to the European Union to play a crucial role in governing the Internet and resulting issues surrounding personal data. Although the project defined in Lisbon in 2000 to make Europe the “leading economic power in terms of knowledge” has for several reasons failed, it is now the task of our old Europe to lay the foundations of a "Web 3.0" capable of providing a “responsible, shared digital environment” based on permitting everyone to manage all the information harvested about their Internet use.


It is also up to Europe to set down boundaries, not out of any disillusioned reaction to its perceived technological backwardness, but in the name of its “democratic maturity.” These boundaries would require the submission of consent clauses to users in a readable, understandable format, so that everyone is aware of how the agreement would operate. These regulations would also promote the spread of “opting in” rather than “opting out” - i.e. no longer having options imposed on us by default, but having to tick boxes voluntarily, especially when it comes to the resale of data to third parties.


Finally, it is up to Europe to engage in the implementation of public policies in support of an “ethical innovation” that favors the creation of new industrial models that make a conscious effort not to endlessly monetize records detailing our behavior.

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It must be possible for Open Data - or the provision of public data for use in an infinite number of services - to be the active laboratory of a European digital economy based on three principles: strict respect for the law; the involvement of the responsible public authority; and free enterprise that takes pains to respect the inviolable integrity of the individual. Apart from the fact that this perspective creates new economic opportunities, it is, moreover, likely to be imitated in other parts of the world, which would contribute to the founding of another “global ecology,” conscious both of the harmful consequences of excess, and the potentially fruitful virtues that might emerge from the reality of an ecosystem revitalized by a shared ethic.


*Eric Sadin’s latest essay: Humanity plus: the digital administration of the world (L'Humanité augmentée, L'administration numérique du monde), by Eric Sadin, published in May 2013 by L'échappée (160 pages, 12 euros), won the prize for the 'most influential essay on the digital world in 2013' at the Hub Awards 2013 on 10 October.


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