Tragedy of the Commons: Snowden’s Reformation and the Balkanization of the Internet

By: Matthew Funk

Introduction: In 1517, Martin Luther put into motion events that would uproot the hegemony of the Catholic Church in Western religion. His Ninety-Five Theses would be the basis for an enormous upheaval of the sacred status quo, and challenge centuries of religious ordering. His “protest” of the practices of the Catholic Church would be disseminated with the power of the printing press, the pinnacle of information technology at the time, and lead to a great fork in the history of Christianity. Protestantism, with unique movements springing up throughout Europe, would ultimately separate from the oversight of the Catholic Church and create a new religious paradigm.

No different in principle, but perhaps in scale, has been the upheaval caused by the confessions of former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. His “leak of [National Security] [A]gency documents has set off a . . . debate over the proper limits of government surveillance.” These leaks have “opened an unprecedented window on the details of surveillance by the NSA, including its compilation of logs of virtually all telephone companies in the United States and its collection of e-mails of foreigners from the major American Internet companies.” This, in turn, has rippled into raucous calls for a new Reformation—one of Internet, not religious, sovereignty and sensibilities. Such calls implicate the principles undergirding the purposes, governance, and even geography of the Internet. And while the calls may not lead to a catastrophic schism on the scale of Christianity’s division in the 16th century, they are certainly loud enough not only to question policy choices regarding the defining information technology of the new millennium thus far, but also to challenge the traditional dynamics of sovereignty-retention in the face of a global online commons.

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