Law in the Internet Society

A Journey to Freedom: A Self-Reflection

-- By AlexXinruiLi - 06 Oct 2019


When David Carroll asked in his classroom about whether you have received an advertisement that made you feel like you were being listened to, almost every student raised their hand (The Great Hack). For me, this frightening revelation happened during a picnic with a few friends in Central Park, where we randomly brought up KitKat? , a well-known chocolate-covered wafer brand. Despite its popularity, I have, in fact, only had KitKat? once in my entire life. And of course, the next moment, I picked up my phone and opened Instagram, there it is, an advertisement for KitKat? . I was stunned. So were my friends. We had heard that our phones and apps could be listening to us, but none of us has taken this more seriously than a mere conspiracy theory. After all, how could anyone with good conscience conduct such as act?

I’ve begun to notice more. Each time creepier than the last. TV commercials from pharmaceutical companies started to call me by my name. Dog food companies even know the name of my dog. It’s fearful to learn that we were indeed bring monitored. Our words are being listened to and analyzed, each click was recorded on a log, and our locations were constantly exposed. On top of that, our information is not possessed separately by different entities. Rather, they are owned and used by a being with the same identity –the giant corporations in Silicon Valley.


My perception of these big names of Silicon Valley was that they were the pioneers and trailblazers who, as the TV series Silicon Valley sarcastically puts it, “make the world a better place.” Today, however, my personal experience and learnings from the classroom have enabled me to question who they really are, or who they have become. Devices like an iPhone attracts a great portion of the U.S. population because of its user-friendly features such as iMessage or iCloud, tools that promised to allow us to connect with my family and friends easier and to provide us with the convenience of having all our information synced across devices. Ironically, these same functions that drew most of us to using smartphones have now turned us into mere commodities. As Professor Moglen said in class, to the majority of us, the issue has seemingly become a binary choice between giving up the “convenience” or protecting our privacy. But is this really the only choice?

Some Answers

Beyond using our personal information for advertising, the tech giants also effectively control what we see. As we find out in class that most browsers we use today would deter users from entering his twiki site, Professor Moglen posed a mind-boggling question: Do we really trust the browsers more than our professor these days? The documentary The Great Hack discusses how our data were sold from companies like Facebook to a company called Cambridge Analytica. It claims to be an expert at analyzing people’s behavioral data. When in fact, it is a “propaganda machine” that was able to influence real persons’ votes in the 2016 election, despite most people’s strong belief and we can’t possibly be influenced this easily. (see also What Did Cambridge Analytica Do During The 2016 Election?) How did the internet know more about us than we do ourselves?

Tracing back to the history of the internet we use today, the founding father Tim Berners-Lee envisioned an internet for everyone. It was the case for a while until the big internet companies control the majority of the web servers. Take Google as an example: it hosts about “twenty-five percent of all North American Internet traffic.” The problem with this is that every time we click to consent to privacy agreements to use these internet services, we give away our personal information in the hands of a few. As they continue to accumulate the amount of personal information collected, they became the “mind of God,” one that knows everything about us and controls our actions without being noticed (Eben Moglen Lecture Dec 4, 2019).

Looking Forward

What do we do next? I started out by using less and less social media. Putting away devices whenever possible. But that’s not enough. Ironically, a TV series, Silicon Valley, introduced me to the concept of a decentralized web, claiming that this would be the future of a new internet. The concept is not made up at all. In real life, there have been many engineering building their own version of the decentralized web.

The difference between a decentralized web and the nowadays centralized internet is the elimination of middlemen. In the internet we use today, if I want to reach something on the web, I would need to go through domain name server, server hosting company and other third parties (Tamas Kocsis TED talk on The case for a decentralized internet). The layers of middlemen, who are controlled by the centralized big internet companies, make the internet more fragile and less free because it’s easy to abuse such power. Decentralized web envisioned a people-powered version of the internet where the centralized middlemen are removed. Imagine our internet today is the centralized Library of Moglenville. In this library, books are prone to be stolen and lost, administrators can control what books are in the library, and readers need an ID card to check out books. In a decentralized library, books copies will be made and stored in neighbors’ homes without interference of administrators, and you can lend books with anonymity. As such, controls from big corporations would be hard to enforce on decentralized web, where there are no hosting companies, because the websites are served by the myriads of visitors themselves. I’m motivated to learn more about how to build such a decentralized web. Perhaps one day, I can build my own email and a home security system. For you, my readers, start by trying to use apps and services built to support the ultimate realization of a completely decentralized web, like Professor Moglen’s FreedomBox Project, “OpenBazaar (a decentralised marketplace), Graphite Docs (a Google documents alternative), Textile Photos (an Instagram alternative), Matrix (a WhatsApp? alternative) and DTube (a YouTube? alternative).”

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Webs Webs

r5 - 23 Jan 2020 - 15:53:17 - AlexXinruiLi
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