The internet has never been a perfect tool for advancing democracy and human rights.
Despite the most optimistic techno-utopian projections, the internet has yet to set us free and rid the world of dictators. Critics have been right to warn us of the dangers of a single-minded approach -- we should be careful not to overlook the deep historical, economic, and cultural factors that shape the world we live in today. At the same time, it is true that the internet has revolutionized the way we are able to connect with each other. We are no longer limited to our culture and geography, we can now unite around shared interests and values.
As the internet has grown in usage and importance in our daily lives, so too has the difficulty of keeping it "free" from censorship and control. This struggle was important enough to 29-year-old former Booz Allen employee Edward Snowden for him to give up his life, career, and freedom to leak a historic amount of classified information about the shocking size and depth of the American surveillance state. The fallout is just beginning - and as of now, there are far more questions than answers.
One thing has become clear though: the credibility of the idea that the internet can be a positive, freedom-promoting global force is facing its largest challenge to date. And it comes directly from one of its most outspoken supporters: the US government.
Simply put, the US government has failed in its role as the "caretaker" of the internet. Although this was never an official designation, America controls much of the infrastructure, and many of the most popular services online are provided by a handful of American companies. The world is starting to sober up to the fact that much of what they've done online in the last decade is now catalogued in a top-secret facility somewhere in the United States.
Reasonable minds can disagree over the necessity of these programs and how to strike the proper balance between security and privacy. These matters aside, what has been the most disturbing part of this entire scandal has to do with the lack of accountability and oversight. Not only were the American people kept in the dark - they were lied to by intelligence officials, misled about possible constitutional violations, and potentially undermined by the very courts that were supposed to protect their rights.
The government has used peculiar interpretations of laws - that they are not even willing to discuss - to defend an invasive collection of personal data beyond anything even the most paranoid among us would have thought was possible. And while President Obama "welcomes the debate" over an issue he has worked hard to keep secret, we are now starting to see the usual Washington tactics of political spin, feverish scapegoating, and patriotic grandstanding in lieu of a real discussion.
We should all be extremely concerned about the colossal surveillance infrastructure that is being built in the name of our safety.
In trying to reassure the public, our leaders have told us that these programs are not meant to target us, but instead, foreigners who may pose a threat to our security. But this is merely a decision on how the data is being used today - we are getting into very dangerous territory by hoping for the best intentions of whoever is in power in the future. American history holds many lessons for us here: circumstances can change, the perception of who is a threat can vary with whoever is in office, and we cannot predict what our political situation will look like decades, or even years, from now.
In the court of global public opinion, America may have tarnished its moral authority to question the surveillance practices of other nations - whether it be Russia on monitoring journalists, or China on conducting cyber espionage. Declarations by the State Department that were once statements of principle now ring hollow and hypocritical to some. No nation can rival the American surveillance state, but they no longer need support to build their own massive systems of espionage and oppression.
The costs of surveillance and data storage technologies are plummeting -- these will no longer be prohibitive factors. Diplomatic pressures and legal barriers that had also once served as major deterrents will soon fade away. The goal has been to promote internet freedom around the world, but we may have also potentially created a blueprint for how authoritarian governments can store, track, and mine their citizens' digital lives.
This article originally appeared on Forbes - Disruption and Democracy