Unveiling the underbelly of the digital age: the digital authoritarianism and its threat to freedom
Feb 8, 2012
Occupy Wall Street
Unveiling the underbelly of digital authoritarianism and its threat to freedom: The rise of digital censorship and control in the age of the internet poses risks to individual rights and societal well-being.
The Arab Spring, virtual movements against governmental abuses around the world (like Occupy Wall Street) and the electronic agora into which Twitter's trends have transformed Twitter give an impression that the forthcoming digital world only increases citizen participation in societal decisions. The impression is false. If digitalization has made immense advances, it also poses great risks, which make fewer headlines because they are less sellable (and today, the policy of publication is almost necessarily for obvious reasons - money). Typically republican attempts like the clumsy SOPA are easier to combat, because they have no moral defense. However, other threats surround us and practically no one is aware. The risks of censorship are everywhere.
For example: In England, an NGO called Open Rights reported that mobile operators were making "blacklists" banning their users from news sites and NGOs without the consent of their customers Vodafone, Orange and O2, three of the largest British mobile operators imposed censorship on sites ranging from hacker activism to technology news (including some well known like GigaOm). The operators claim that they were banning pornography and copyright abuse sites, but the list shows that the electronic pillory went well beyond that. It's not just a disregard for the customer, who had a less broad access than they had bought. **Traffic Shaping, the discrimination of data traffic according to specific interests, is against British and European law.
Foreign Policy magazine has done another very interesting story about the evolution of a semi-police state in the European web that acts on the margins of the law, occasionally overstepping its limits when no one is looking. Basically, what seems to be happening is a trend of large information control operators - and not only news - that are not ashamed to block access to troublesome entities. The most frightening is that these are private entities that are doing "justice" with their own hands, misinterpreting legislation against pornography, copyright protection and the like. For several years, the lobby of companies such as telephony and media has been trying to overthrow the neutrality of the Web, and to make traffic shaping legal, which would effectively create a large censorship state with a public web and an "underground" to which most people would not have access. For now, only the Netherlands is free from this danger, having made net neutrality a requirement.
In his book Control Revolution, scholar James Beniger traced, already in the 1980s, a line showing how control has sophisticated over history and even in the biological development of living beings. Basically, evolution poses a need which is the increase of information to be managed and this can only be done through more sophisticated forms of control. This applies from animals that evolutionarily create biological control systems to become stronger and more competitive to industries that in their expansion, begin to manage larger quantities of goods in more varied destinations and need to improve their control systems.
He talks about control through information, but did not have the Internet fully in view (the book is from 1986). The problem is that the Web, yes, creates great possibilities for the individual (as Andrew Shapiro argues in a book homonymous to Beniger's) but Shapiro has a very Manichean view, where the Internet becomes a synonym for freedom. No technology is the technology of happiness (one of the conclusionsthat is drawn from reading Leibniz). Technology has nothing to do necessarily with happiness. Everything depends on its use. A global legislation guaranteeing digital freedom is absolutely fundamental for the next decade.
Gigantic social networks and categorization of abyssal amounts of information create great risks. Definitions of behavior, monitoring of people, tracking of ideas and theories, control of information flows, all this can happen in the more digitized world. The futuristic scenarios of Matrix and Blade Runner are very plausible today, much more so than when William Gibson conceived Neuromancer. An omnipresent police state is the greatest risk that digital advances bring, just as atomic energy and industrialization also had their own. Mobilizing people to think about this (as the Netherlands did and Germany should do) is the great task of truly civilized societies.