Law in the Internet Society

Our Internet and Our Democracy [Revised]

The Internet – As Envisaged and As Is

The internet, as it was originally envisaged, was meant to be a network for decentralized communication, devoid of hierarchical or structural control, bolstering the freedom of exchange of ideas and information. The internet has undoubtedly expanded the bounds of communication. However, control over the internet, in the form it currently inhabits, has become largely centralized in the hands of a few corporations. These corporations wield power over our imagination and behavior through manipulation of information and data such that the result is unfreedom. The user is reduced to a mere consumer selling his attention and data. As such, a new virtual power has come into being, with a handful of corporations exploiting the ability to exercise control over information, communication and behavior, to a degree arguably greater than perhaps even the state.

The State and the Internet

The pioneers of free software had recognized that digital technology facilitates mass consumer culture which gives birth to new social conditions based on which class antagonism perpetuates itself. The government or a political party vying for power, through big data and social media companies, uses the data made available through carefully logged tracks of consumerism (where the primary currency is attention) to exacerbate the antagonism in service of its objectives. Essentially, the market for attention creates the market for information about the people paying attention. There are several instances of authoritarian leaders in a democracy co-opting the power of the oligopoly of the big technology companies to influence what we see, and when and how we see it. The internet, whether in its presence or in its absence as in the case of the recent shutdown by the government and information blockade in Kashmir, is being used as a manipulative tool by political leaders to undermine democracy. Social media companies have imperiled democracy through manipulation of the election process, incitement of violence and perpetuation of information asymmetry.

Internet, Democracy and the User/Citizen

There are four key stakeholders concerned with internet restructuring: (i) the technology companies; (ii) the proponents of free software; (iii) the government / political leaders; and (iv) individuals as consumers / users / citizens. The free software movement is particularly important because in offering an alternate form of the internet that “allows the users to control the software they use, rather than vice versa”, it provides a practicable counter-narrative. It demonstrates that fighting against those who control the internet is not fighting against the existence of the internet itself.

It appears that tech companies, governments and individuals as consumers are primarily responsible for the proliferation of the big brother equivalent of the internet. And if we are to imagine a new form of the internet that enables freedom and strengthens democracy, akin to the design it was originally envisaged to have, the lead will have to be taken by free software and individuals as users and citizens.

As Croll puts it, "big data is our generation's civil rights issue", and it is about time we see how inextricably the future of our internet is linked to the future of our democracy. The user, and prioritization of her rights and freedom, was meant to be at the center of the internet. This aspect encompasses within itself the fundamental features of democracy – liberty, equality, freedom of expression and access to information. The way to salvage the internet is, therefore, perhaps the way to salvage democracy.

Having looked at what needs to be done and why, we need to consider how we can start moving in that direction. To leave it to the government to make regulations is to simply wait for it to exercise more control over what it is already exploiting; and to trust self-regulation by companies is to hope privatization of democracy will yield favorable results. To be sure, governments and companies ought to act – but not in isolation. But rather in response to actions of society which tantamount to calls for a shift in structure that places the user at the center. We ought to reclaim our status as citizens and users instead of mere consumers / data sets.

Consciousness is the crucial first step for it leads us to the question that follows – how may we begin this exercise in reclamation? Systemic changes in governance and educational initiatives are important but such collective action is necessarily a long-term goal, contingent on numerous variables including political pressure, limited resources and a pervasive power imbalance. What individual action can we take in the short term to propel such collective action in the long-term? The answer perhaps lies in the primary motivation that drives the tech market - user preference - to force a change in the architecture of the internet.

Market solutions offered by tech companies are informed primarily by user preferences and the signals she sends out. We need to alter the manner in which we use online platforms, that is to say, we need to inquire into who is collecting what kind of information about us and for what purpose. Next, it is upon on us to act on such information and demonstrate a clear preference. One way in which this can be done is by opting for platforms that respect the users’ privacy over those that do not. For instance, a surge in users who choose DuckDuckGo? over Google, would reflect that consumer choice is aligned with privacy protectionism. This will necessarily exert pressure and propel changes in technology. Contrary to how inseparable our generation has made these platforms seem from our conception of identity, expression and convenience, the truth is, the platforms are nothing without its users and not vice versa.

Change is required both in the distribution and design of services and in the habits of users.If the citizen in a democracy acts in a certain manner, the corporate citizen will be compelled to react accordingly. Eventually, consumer behavior and democratic action will collectively lead to gradual systemic change.


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r6 - 24 Jan 2020 - 17:04:16 - NamrataMaheshwari
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