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24 January 2017

The best days of the internet are over – now our privacy will suffer

Thankfully, nobody can see the Freddie Mercury impression I uploaded to YouTube in 2006. Tomorrow's teenagers, however, might not be so lucky.

By Amelia Tait

In the 11 years since I uploaded it to YouTube, 48,514 people have watched a video of my 14-year-old self singing and dancing to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”. If you wanted to find the video today – and I don’t see why you would, considering that, as I arrive at “scaramouche, scaramouche”, I get distracted by a cat and, two minutes later, I hit my head on a ceiling light – you wouldn’t be able to. This is because when I started applying for grown-up jobs, I set the video to “private”. It exists on the internet but can only be seen by me.

There is an idea, propagated by anyone who nostalgically remembers a time when children played out on the streets and didn’t come home until dinner, that kids who use the internet are destined to be haunted by what they post online. Thus far, my life has not been blighted by my YouTube video, nor by the pictures I posted to Bebo in 2005, nor by the poems I scribbled on Myspace in 2008. Yet I fear that things will be different for my children, or their children.

The internet has changed so rapidly over the past decade that I can now prematurely join the “back in my day” brigade. The old Wild West of the World Wide Web has now been colonised by a few big-time cowboys. The experimental social media pages of the Noughties quickly died and took my embarrassing teenage pictures with them, but today’s social networks become more embedded in our lives by the day. While “private” used to be simply a button I could press to hide my YouTube shame, it is now a concept under threat.

At the end of 2016, the Investigatory Powers Act – or “Snoopers’ Charter”, as it has come to be known – became law. The act grants the government unprecedented spying powers, so that your online communications and search records can be intercepted by 48 different agencies, including – bizarrely – the Department for Transport and the Food Standards Agency. The level of surveillance that the act permits is dystopian, especially when used in concert with the Digital Economy Bill, which has just passed its second reading in the House of Lords. This legislation seeks, among other things, to ban “adult” sites that don’t implement age-verification measures. The word “adult” here seems deliberately vague.

The near-lawless era of the internet so far is coming to an end. Age verification, a process that involves handing over your identity, threatens internet anonymity, which in turn threatens much of the internet’s art (and arguments). The banning and blocking of websites that do not comply with the government’s moral ruling destroys the foundational freedoms of the information age, while surveillance powers threaten the way in which we use the internet.

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None of this threatens my 2006 YouTube video, nor my ability to make another in 2017, but it shows that we must change the way we think about how our internet histories will haunt us as we grow. It is not embarrassing YouTube videos or pictures of drunken antics that should worry today’s teenagers, but the keywords that they search and the messages that they send. Until now, we have taken for granted that such things will remain private. That is no longer the case.

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Even before the law began to curtail the Wild Web, its individual territories had already been seized, bit by bit, by a handful of powerful corporations. Facebook has acquired more than 50 companies in the past 12 years, including social networks, speech recognition services and virtual reality developers. Through these acquisitions, Face­book has obtained a staggering amount of personal data. Last August, the social network revealed that it uses 98 different aspects of your private information just to target adverts at you.

Naturally, this encroachment of our privacy has provoked a backlash. Yet the people who started sending messages on WhatsApp to avoid being spied on by Face­book Messenger were deterred when the former was acquired by the latter in 2014. This month, we learned that WhatsApp messages, too, can be intercepted and read.

Then  there is the “internet of things” (IoT). Gradually, we invite internet-connected kettles, toys and even hairbrushes into our homes, many of which are equipped with microphones that can be hacked to listen to our every word. Yet before any malicious hacker sets his or her fingers to their keys, the companies behind many IoT products freely admit to saving and storing an abundance of your personal data. Echo, Amazon’s “constantly listening” smart speaker, records everything you say to it and stores it on a server. It is George Orwell’s telescreen, except that you pay £149.99 for the privilege of having it in your home.

It feels dramatic to claim that the era of internet freedom is over, yet all the signs point that way. The inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, has called these “dark, dark days”. Who will stop our freedoms being infringed further? We stand to lose so much by exiting the European Union that there has been little mention of how it protects online freedom. Last December, the European Court of Justice declared the Investigatory Powers Act to be unlawful, but will this matter after Brexit?

Posting a video of myself singing “Bohemian Rhapsody” was not the worst thing I did online in 2006, but it was by far the most visible. As a curious teenager, I undoubtedly asked Google how to dispose of a dead body, and long before that I definitely sent messages that should never, ever have been sent. But while I only had to worry about my poor Freddie Mercury impression, tomorrow’s teens will have to be aware that they are being watched every time they press send.

Amelia Tait is a digital culture writer for Helen Lewis is away

This article appears in the 18 Jan 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era