Never say Never
Commentary by Lenko Grigorov

World Wild West: Robber Barons, Bandits and Sheriffs

Recently we celebrated the 25th anniversary of the web. Some of us who are old enough can still remember when the web started out. At that time, they said that it is a lawless place – anyone could put whatever they wanted on the web and anyone else could read it. The web was compared to the Wild West.

How is the web today, 25 years later? The web is much more regulated and controlled than in its nascence. Yet, for ordinary users it still resembles the Wild West as much as ever: it is full of robber barons, bandits and sheriffs.

Robber Barons

There are so many useful services available for free on the internet: social networking, business ratings, information databases, traffic and weather conditions, etc. It is just amazing what we can do now in comparison to a few decades ago. Yet, how do we pay for all these services? Indeed, users do not pay with money. They pay with their privacy and independence.

Targeted advertising, big data, location tracking, walled gardens, internet of things – all of these chip away at the human integrity of the users. You cannot view the photos of your daughter's vacation unless you sign up and download yet another app. It is now almost impossible perform a web search for medications for your grandfather without being consequently bombarded with advertisements of various medical treatments. The "smart" TVs are watching you and recording you while you are making love.

Anywhere you go on the web, the road is littered with robber barons extracting their toll.


Of course, in comparison to other actors on the web, the robber barons appear almost innocent. There are real bandits out there, and they are not the ones guilty of simply posting inappropriate material. Instead, their repertoire includes identity theft, extortion, corporate spying, sabotage, trafficking, etc.

Organized crime has broken into the digital age with the same old brutal techniques. They hire experts who know the ins and outs of the technologies behind web services. The new crimes are virtual – silent and invisible. Credit card information is stolen from the merchant where one shops. Health information is stolen from one's hospital. One's computer is encrypted and locked, with criminals demanding ransom. Corporate network are infiltrated through innocent-looking emails.

The security tools available to ordinary users are no match to the ingenuity of these bandits.


Finally, here come the sheriffs, protecting users from the dangers of the web. They are the good guys... Or are they?

In the last couple of years we have witnessed plenty of revelations about the secret workings of governmental organizations. There is warrant-less mass surveillance, sabotage of encryption standards, gag orders, duping of mobile phones, cyber warfare, etc. Of course, there are always excuses for such activities – from terrorism to child abuse.

Law enforcement is struggling to find successful countermeasures to the proliferation of cyber crime. Unfortunately, the victims are often innocent people. Potential terrorsts are enticed by agents to go ahead with their plans so that they can be apprehended. Elderly or mothers with babies are selected for intrusive screening at airports. Journalists are blocked from reporting on the business of elected govenrments.

Self-censoring is on the rise, and with it the cost of losing dignity.

— Toronto, Apr 2015

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