These days, America has one dominant search engine, one dominant social-networking site, and four phone companies. The structure of the information industry often goes unnoticed, but it has an enormous effect on the ease with which the government spies on citizens. The remarkable consolidation of the communications and Web industries into a handful of firms has made spying much simpler and, therefore, more likely to happen.Think back to the late nineteen-nineties, and try to imagine the federal government trying to wiretap the Web. Where to start? There were multiple, competing search engines, including Lycos, Bigfoot, and AltaVista, few of which had much information worth getting one’s hands on. Social networking? Well, there was GeoCities, sort of an early version of Facebook or Tumblr, but that site allowed fake names and didn’t have access to a lot of data. Even getting at e-mail was more difficult in those days, with hundreds of I.S.P.s offering localized e-mail services. AOL was the best bet. Finally, for a government wiretapper, there was no continuity: with firms rising and falling, a wiretap might go down with the company.
In the nineties, tapping the Web, if not impossible, was certainly a pain, which is not to say that the Web itself was better for users. We can concede that Google is superior to Archie-Veronica. But we will always face a trade-off: more centralization and concentration means convenience for consumers, but it also makes government surveillance and censorship easier.
What we now call electronic privacy first became an issue in the eighteen-seventies, after Western Union, the earliest and, in some ways, the most terrifying of the communications monopolies, achieved dominion over the telegraph system. Western Union was accused of intercepting and reading its customers’ telegraphs for both political and financial purposes (what’s now considered insider trading). Western Union was a known ally of the Republican Party, but the Democrats of the day had no choice but to use its wires, which put them at a disadvantage; for example, Republicans won the contested election of 1876 thanks in part to an intercepted telegraph. The extent of Western Union’s actions might never be entirely known, since in response to a congressional inquiry the company destroyed most of its relevant records.
The telephone is a similar story. Federal wiretapping of telephones wasn’t such a practical matter around, say, the turn of the twentieth century, when the United States had thousands of telephone companies (yes, thousands). In those days, the spying problem was the problem of eavesdropping by the operators who connected calls. In fact, operators would occasionally break into conversations and express their own opinions—taking sides in an argument, for example. Local police also wiretapped in the early days; in the nineteen-tens, the New York Police Department caused a scandal by tapping the phones of Catholic priests.
But federal wiretapping as we know it only became serious in the twenties, after the government blessed the establishment of a telephone monopoly headed by the great Bell company, A. T. & T. The Treasury department, which headed the federal-law-enforcement effort against prohibition, led the way. Such federal wiretapping reached its ignominious summit in the nineteen-fifties and sixties, when the F.B.I. and the U.S. military installed taps on the phones of thousands, from such figures as Martin Luther King, Jr., and John Lennon to anyone who seemed vaguely suspicious.
That surveillance was brought to you by A. T. & T., by then a long-standing monopoly and a very close friend of government—a partner, really, in the government’s defense and intelligence efforts. In addition to its aid in wiretapping, A. T. & T. ran various Defense Department projects, such as early-warning systems for I.C.B.M.s, and nuclear laboratories in Nevada. These projects were paid not by higher taxes but by higher telephone bills.
The national-security state tends to love monopolies—a coöperative monopoly augments and extends the power of the state, like a technological prosthesis. (Germany offers even more extreme examples of this than America does.) In general, when a dominant firm, or a few firms, holds power over part of the information industry, we can expect intelligence agencies to demand coöperation and partnership. Over time, the firm can become a well-compensated executioner of state will. If history is any guide, the longer that companies like Facebook and Google stay dominant, the more likely it becomes that they will serve as intelligence partners to the United States and other governments.
It’s possible, as Jeff Jarvis, a defender of Google and Facebook, pointed out on Twitter, that concentration is better than competition: “Bigger companies have more lawyers to fight govt.” Ah, yes, but you have to want to fight. Google, to be fair, has countered government subpoenas with vigor, and deserves credit for doing so. But it is a young company, and time and size have their effects, especially because large firms need things from government, such as tax breaks and merger approvals, which creates reasons to be a “good citizen.” For a model of what the Web could become, we need only look at Verizon or A. T. & T., both amply rewarded by Washington for serving as the state’s most reliable intelligence accomplices.
Of course, history isn’t destiny. Google or Facebook might choose a different course than their predecessors, but, short of civil disobedience, these firms need to ultimately obey the law—and the law actually mandates lying to customers and to employees. Jarvis is naïve to expect a firm to disobey.
Consequently, if you’d like less government surveillance, the alternative answer to political control is more competition in the industries that handle and store information. At the federal level, this means vigorous antitrust enforcement. At the personal level, it means that if citizens really want less spying, they must quit Facebook, and use search engines other than Google.
We are often told that we’re living in special times, but it has always been a good time to spy on citizens, whether during the Cold War or the Second World War, or at the turn of the nineteenth century, when anarchists actually killed a President. The state’s will to surveil and to spy is constant. It is the structure and design of the information industries that make it more or less likely.
Illustration by Maximilian Bode.