We are losing our freedom (and we may not even notice)
Jan 8, 2024
freedom of speech
If the Internet is far from the same from the democratic place we have in mind, then what is it?
"The web is breaking." "We could have a 'Splinternet' in the future." "Some companies endanger the web architecture by trying to monopolize it." These are common claims if you follow philosophical-technical discussions about the Internet. If these concern you, here's some reassurance: the Internet is already fragmented, and it has been for a while. We choose to ignore this because we're dependent on corporate products with persuasive PR - until we encounter a problem. However, this might not be entirely negative: the "Splinternet" could lead to a system where encryption could limit the influence of corporations or state-backed web bullies.
The Internet exists in countless versions. In the West, mega-corporations dominate to such an extent that individual users often feel insignificant. Companies like Meta, Google, Amazon, and Microsoft hold sway over everything, from walled gardens to domains that require hefty fees to access. Most crucially, these corporations control your data. While you can download your data and close your account, its utility is limited. Moreover, your data has already been disseminated to various other entities, rendering the small, seemingly insignificant data you hold almost insulting. Beyond this, there's a part of the web that 99.99% of people can't access, known as the deep or dark web. Here, it's akin to walking through a neighborhood where you're vulnerable to attacks, even in broad daylight.
International law is currently confronting a struggle that seems insurmountable unless significant changes are made. Laws have traditionally been conceived within national frameworks. Although there is a substantial body of international law, the disregard shown by figures such as Vladimir Putin, Saudi Arabian rulers, or Israel towards potential legal consequences is evident. They seem indifferent to the ramifications of their actions, from potential imprisonment to international condemnation for violating human rights. The limitations of international law are also apparent as it does not restrict the free movement of money; it was not designed with this in mind. However, in a world where national boundaries are becoming less significant, international law could be our only hope, as the interests of corporations and nation-states have now become international.
For instance, while internet access is seamless in Seoul, just several hundred miles north, it's as inaccessible as the edge of the universe. Social media users consume information as if being spoon-fed, yet often remain under the illusion that they're not the ones being manipulated.
Four years ago in Strasbourg, the Council of Europe (unrelated to the EU) organized an event to facilitate youth leadership experiences sharing. It was striking to observe how a generation, so tethered to the internet it was as if they were plugged in themselves, Matrix's Neo-style, was naive about the freedom social media offered them. If late teenagers were this uninformed, consider their parents and relatives - precisely the demographic that votes out of fear, casting their ballots for those voicing slogans eerily reminiscent of those prevalent in the interwar period.
The splintered Internet is a reality, and we need to decide how to handle it. Several solutions exist. Bluesky is an application similar to Twitter, developed by a former Twitter founder. It provides greater control over your data and has an architecture designed to be more resistant to disinformation attacks. Matrix is an open protocol for decentralized, secure communication, promoting safer data exchange without maintaining complete control over the systems built on it. There's also Mastodon, a platform some believed could replace Twitter. Numerous initiatives exist on platforms like Github, yet elevating open-source software to a level where it can compete with companies that spend billions on lobbying and public relations is a significant challenge.
A change in mindset is truly the only factor that can alter the status quo. There are substantial groups within the European Union who desire to enforce stricter laws to rein in corporate excesses. However, there's a potential downside: Europe may never produce a giant like those in China and America. This is due to these countries lacking constitutional protections for labor, privacy, welfare, and individual rights, and a Congress and Supreme Court not influenced by money. Essentially, nations safeguarding basic individual rights carry a higher social cost, which often hinders startups from scaling to global levels. While the EU receives a considerable amount of criticism, it could arguably be the best option as tech corporations can't simply forsake 850 million affluent customers, thus they must comply with European laws. Nevertheless, until we establish international laws that can effectively curb abuses, our options remain limited.
Every national founder advocated for their country's rights, sometimes so aggressively that they were labeled as terrorists or criminals by their oppressors. While we haven't seen armed resistance demanding privacy in the streets, historical patterns suggest we are nearing a tipping point. The curtailing of individual rights, rise of populism, and waves of xenophobia, racism, and other forms of fanaticism are already evident in our societies. This isn't to suggest a massive movement against Facebook or Twitter is imminent, but the societal damage these companies cause could lead to confrontations over other issues. Ultimately, the fallout is the same. Therefore, when you say you don't care because you have nothing to hide, allowing social platforms to use your data as they please, you're being naive at best.