The siege widens and our freedom weakens
Mar 18, 2013
The Fragility of Internet Freedom: Tech Giants' Power and the Risk to Individual Expression and Public Interest
The idea that the Internet is a free forum for society is often considered true. The idea of a virtual agora is pleasant and catalyzes enthusiasts of the information generation who entered adult life with the web out of its embryonic period. Only this freedom is much more fragile than it may seem. And the good guys in the story can perfectly turn into villains from one moment to the next.
The fragmentation of access to information distribution has led to an unequivocal change in the way power is divided between corporations, governments, and citizens. Events like the Arab Spring, for example, would never have happened without the capillarization of the information network among its members. But there is a flip side to the coin: today, large technology companies are becoming entities with para-state powers, being able to retain or disseminate information, report or not behaviors and groupings, limit access or disseminate "alternative versions" of reality.
This risk is not imminent - it is real. The lecture by activist Rebecca Mackinnon at TED (above) gives a very happy example of an Apple commercial from 1984 that suggested technology as a method of liberation and then, Apple's decisions, which having passed from outsider to major, clearly prioritized their corporate and governmental relationships to the detriment of the right to individual freedom of expression.
This first issue is not limited to Apple, naturally. It permeates all the protagonists of the technology industry who have garnered a large enough user base to be able to exercise powers over them that only constituted states should have if they had been democratically formed for this. The virtual world does not offer institutions or globally accepted sets of rules that can demand from these companies the accountability they should make to their users and, when they do, it is by a decision exclusively theirs, taking into account their economic interests, their image, and the greater or lesser level of concern for the user.
A second risk is the increasingly trend of these companies to "close" third-party access (whether they are other companies, competitors or non-users) to the silo of information collected from these users and/or offered to them. Apparently, this is a legitimate right of companies - not to allow competitors to benefit from data collected from customers that they have won. However, when a company comes to have about 15% of the planet's population on its customer list, as happens with Facebook, the corporate commercial interest begins to clash with the public interest it offers as a service.
The core of the idea in the genesis of the Internet was that of a network that would escape the control of an entity and that the fall of part of the network (at the time, due to a nuclear war) would not interfere with the functioning of the rest of it. The flourishing of companies in the digital world has always happened with companies that respected this public nature of the network.
Technology giants who were once unquestionable leaders, such as Microsoft and IBM, began to lose their crowns by trying to block paths to competition. Even with this precedent established, the idea of "closing the door" to strangers is still seductive to companies that momentarily lead their markets because of a pressure completely alien to the web ecosystem - the pressure from the companies' shareholders for ever-increasing profits. As shareholders will never accept a decrease in dividends due to a prioritization of public interest, it seems certain that entering the Stock Exchange will continue the rotation among the ball owners. The cycle of the company that grows exponentially, becomes a phenomenon, opens its capital and gets complicated when starting to make decisions based on the interests of shareholders instead of the interests of customers seems to be the life cycle of technology companies.
The solution to both problems involves the strengthening of institutions within society, but outside the State and the market. The State will always serve the interests of the current government. The market, in turn, tends to behave with signs of psychopathy, always putting profits ahead of public interests. Civil society is the only chance - albeit fragile - that it itself has to keep the Internet free from the control of political and/or economic group interests.
Digital activism needs to multiply and always keep in mind that it cannot make the mistake of unions, which have become ends in themselves. The vigor of the web as a platform for social, political, and economic development in all countries that do not live under explicit dictatorships or anemic democracies depends on this complex balance of forces. It is about taking responsibility. The Internet has delivered immense power to society, which now needs to show that it is mature enough to handle it well.