January 18, 2012

The Matrix has you

We hear it all the time: the Internet is becoming more and more important in our lives. We read news on it, we socialize, shop, bank, and get an increasing share of our entertainment from it. A whole parallel cyber-universe coexists with the brick-and-mortar (often more boring) reality we brave every morning we step out of our beds. The Wachowsky brothers were not that crazy after all. We choose to live in a computer-generated reality -- a "Matrix" called Internet. Our Facebook self is nothing but our own residual self image --the "Neo" version of ourselves. One would think the parallelisms between cyberspace and real life should extend to many more areas. If there is a marketplace in cyberspace -where you can get anywhere from a prostitute to a Bentley- and a bunch of social networks where humans interact -some even find their soul mates-, the same natural/legal rights and social institutions that underpin growth and stability in the brick-and-mortar world (like monetary mechanisms, property rights, privacy rights, freedom of expression, markets, etc) have a bizarro counterpart in the internet "Matrix".

With online retail sales exponentially growing, online property rights become paramount (just as property rights are the foundation for the brick-and-mortar world). But with security breaches being more and more frequent, a huge threat rears its ugly head. The total obliteration of knowledge-based companies like Stratfor only reminds us of how vulnerable anyone can be if we do business in the internet. Think about how critical this will become if more and more people become dependent on the internet for day to day transactions. The preservation of confidence that you can go to the internet to buy/sell products and services without the threat of being stripped of your identity or bank account is fundamental if the world is to keep relying on the internet as a platform for economic growth into the future.

Government, in its position of enforcer of property rights, has clumsily attempted to remedy this threat -- as usual, not very cleverly. Web piracy, a prime example of property rights infringement, is currently at the forefront of a discussion that has pushed politicians to scramble to propose a piece of legislation that basically threatens another natural right for those of us living in the "Matrix": freedom of expression. With the pretext of blocking web-piracy, the SOPA/PIPA could have potentially been used to censor internet content, putting the US in the same camp as other known internet-censor-states like Iran, China, Ben Ahly's Tunisia or Mubarak's Egypt. A piece of legislation that hurts personal freedoms with the pretext of fighting a threat (did someone mention the Patriot act?).

The internet is dynamic. That much we know. It has replicated a reality online that has evolved so rapidly and chaotically that people trying to develop the rules of engagement for that game are struggling to keep up. Granted, we have a template for that "Matrix" reality in the brick-and-mortar world, so politicians should be able to apply and adapt rules from the real world to the world of the "Matrix". Unfortunately, politicians are not known to be tech savvy, and the adaptation process can be dangerously flawed. They will have to rely on geek brainpower and the collaboration of internet users if they are to shape legislation that: a) effectively strengthens the digital rule of law b) protects our natural and legal rights in the "Matrix" world and c) keeps the heavy influence of special interests and lobbyist at bay. Not easy, right? The journey is about to begin, or to quote Mr. Anderson:

"I didn't come here to tell you how this is going to end. I came here to tell you how it's going to begin."