Edward Snowden may be a man of controversy and mixed reception, but everyone can agree that each time he speaks (although virtually) it becomes a litmus test of public opinion on the Internet.
On Wednesday, March 25 at this year's World Hosting Days in Rust, Germany, Snowden did not disappoint in this regard - appearing on screen in front of the world's leading Internet industry players, he made a serious call to action: "You have the opportunity today to have the trusted service provider relationship with your customers simply by changing your policies."
Of course, no service provider wants to be distrusted by their users. Data privacy is a hard balancing act to play as a service provider, with privacy laws and government policies varying region to region, and new surveillance threats - both from governments and large Internet companies - emerging all the time. But (as someone standing in the room as Snowden made his call to action) I have to say the industry has never been so energized as it is today to turn around the bad course that the Internet has been on, and create a more transparent, open Internet - the Internet that users deserve.
But service providers can't change the world by themselves - users have to be on board, because they are voting on Internet policy every day with their online behaviors.
The Consumer View on the Open Internet
A recent survey Open-Xchange conducted of 3,000 average Internet users in Europe and the U.S. (called the Consumer Openness Index) showed that more than half (55 percent) believe it is impossible to enjoy online services without sacrificing personal privacy. That paints a dark, perhaps even cynical view of public opinion on the Internet - however, these same users also expressed that they are open to using technologies which could improve the transparency and security of the Web.
In fact, 50 percent of survey respondents said that if a tool, for example a mobile application, existed that would alert them when their personal data was being shared by a website, then they would stop using that website immediately. Additionally, a majority would be willing to use encryption for their email, messaging and voice chats - 72 percent said they'd potentially do so. What's stopping them? Ease of use and awareness, it seems: 54 percent would adopt encryption if it was as easy as clicking a button, 47 percent would do so if it came standard with applications, and another 47 percent would use encryption if they had a better understanding of what it was and how to use it.
If you're an advocate of changing the Internet through innovative technology and services, then these are actually very inspiring numbers. Clearly, it's not indifference or apathy that's keeping users from abandoning many of the current intrusive (and often 'free') online services and applications they use - it's simply that aren't aware of or don't have access to easy-to-use, simple alternatives.
Now that's what I'd call a "call to action" for the Internet Industry.
Rebels Without a 'Clause'
I had the privilege of talking over these issues just two weeks ago at SXSW Interactive with some of the smartest minds on data privacy and Internet policy. I convened with Sascha Meinrath, Director of X-Lab; Michele Neylon, CEO of Blacknight Solutions; Dr. Matt McGlone, Associate Professor of Communication Studies at The University of Texas; and Mike Farrell, editor of Passcode, for a roundtable discussion on the results of the Consumer Openness Index.
The venue itself - the German Haus - was very apropos, since us Germans have a unique stance on privacy issues. Whatever the reasons - historical, social, political - German users are more cognizant of their privacy on the Internet than their counterparts in the UK or the U.S., and this was evidenced in our research. In fact, only one-quarter (24 percent) of German users said they have shared credit or debit card information online in the past 3 months - significantly fewer than those in the UK and U.S. (48 percent and 49 percent, respectively). Nearly one-quarter say they do not perform any financial transactions online, as a way to protect their privacy.
Terms and conditions - otherwise known as those lengthy statements that come up when a user is signing up for a new service - are overlooked by many Internet users worldwide. However, more than one-third (37 percent) of German users said they always read terms and conditions.
This level of privacy awareness if nothing to brag about, because Germany has its own troubling history of surveillance, from the Nazis through to the Stasi. But it does show that everyday users can make decisions that really matter online, and that can influence the technology industry, government policy and Internet standards.
Most of the roundtable participants at the German Haus voiced optimism that the Internet industry and policymakers can work together to positively address the current user dissatisfaction with the state of the Internet. Dr. McGlone in particular commented that users are "open to new technologies for protecting their privacy, more open than they were even five years ago." But he also clarified that "simplicity and convenience will be big determiners of their likelihood of using these technologies."
Again - that's a clear call to action. If Internet industry players who value freedom, transparency and privacy can beat the "big guys" at their own game (ease of use, user experience, accessibility and so on) then users can be swayed to embrace a more open Internet through the tools and services they choose to consume.
The So What
Every time a new poll of public opinion on the Internet comes out - and each time Edward Snowden makes a new public statement - we are left asking ourselves "so what?" Will things ever change?
Actually, as shown by the Consumer Openness Index and other recent research like the Pew Research Center's Changing Privacy Landscape report, it's remarkable how much the average Internet user is waking up to the reality of the convoluted, tangled Web that today's Internet has become - including its dangers, its limitations and where it has definite "room for improvement."
There are no quick and easy solutions to today's Internet quandaries, where giant Data States hold our information captive. But by listening to users, and keeping a finger on the pulse of 'openness' that's out there currently, it makes it ten times easier for those of us in the Internet industry to begin making changes that matter - right now!
We're not stuck with the Internet we have, and the Internet we deserve is starting to be in sight.