The dreamers, brains and cranks who built the internet hoped it would be a tool of liberation and knowledge. Last week, an altogether bleaker vision emerged with new revelations of how the United States government is using it as a monitoring and tracking device.
In Silicon Valley, a place not used to second-guessing the bright future it is eternally building, there was a palpable sense of dismay.
"Most of the people who developed the network are bothered by the way it is being misused," says Les Earnest, a retired Stanford computer scientist who built something that resembled Facebook nine years before the inventor of Facebook was born. "From the beginning we worried about governments getting control. Well, our government has finally found a way to tap in."
The technology world has always strived to keep Washington at a certain arm's length. Regulation would snuff out innovation, the entrepreneurs regularly cried. Bureaucrats should keep their hands off things they do not understand, which is just about everything we do out here.
So the first mystifying thing for some here is how the leading companies - including Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, Apple and Facebook - apparently made it easier for the National Security Agency to gain access to their data. Only Twitter seems to have declined.
The companies deny directly working with the government on the project, called Prism. But they have not been exactly eager to talk about how they are working indirectly and where they would draw the line.
ENTREPRENEURS URGE MORE DISCLOSURE
Entrepreneurs around Silicon Valley are publicly urging more disclosure.
"The success of any Silicon Valley consumer company is based not only on the value their products bring to users but also on the level of trust they can establish," says Adriano Farano, co-founder of Watchup, which makes an iPad app that builds personalised newscasts. "What is at stake here is the credibility of our entire ecosystem."
It is an ecosystem that thrives on personal data. Prism, which collects emails, video, voice and stored data, among other forms of internet information, was exposed at a moment when the very possibility of online privacy seemed to be in doubt.
New technologies like Google Glass are relentlessly pushing into territory that was out of reach until recently. From established behemoths to new start-ups, tech companies are bubbling with plans to collect the most intimate data and use it to sell things.
"We're pushing our government to protect us, and we're also busy putting more and more of our information out there for people to look at," says Christopher Clifton, a Purdue computer scientist who has done extensive work on methods of data collection that preserve privacy. "The fact that some of that data is indeed going to be looked at might be disturbing but it shouldn't be surprising."
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