European Digital Rights’ Joe McNamee gives an impassioned view of how freedom of expression works, or sometimes does not work, in the digital sphere.
Everything good needs to be nurtured. The Internet has given us amazing benefits, both socially and economically. However, as was famously observed, the price of freedom is eternal vigilance and this is particularly true of the Internet in 2015.
The Internet was designed to be open, to be resilient by not having a single point of failure, thereby allowing anyone able to communicate freely with anyone. However, networks tend, almost by definition, to consolidate, reducing choice and robustness. If the Internet was an organism, it would be one with a weak immune system, susceptible to the sickness of centralisation that attacks its very heart.
This centralisation can be seen in the ‘net neutrality’ debate. The access providers that we rely on to connect to the Internet are consolidating and seeking (through blunt blocking/throttling and more subtle data deals with online monopolies) to become centralised gatekeepers between their users and the Internet. Then, of course, the Internet is no longer the Internet, because the anyone-to-anyone openness is strangled by short-term rent-seeking of anti-competitive monsters.
In parallel, the virtual online infrastructure is suffering from the same sickness. We see a small number of companies - Facebook and Google in particular - becoming deeply disturbing quasi-monopolies. Many people cannot imagine using the Internet without using Facebook, which claims to have over a billion regular users. Running a political campaign requires use of a Facebook page. Being a campaign organisation requires having a Facebook page.
This centralisation gets even worse in developing countries, where Facebook has aggressively done deals with mobile operators for its ‘free basics’ service, which allows subsidised access to sites approved by Facebook. With ‘free basics’, the operators get revenue from Facebook, removing incentives to invest in networks to provide real Internet access. Facebook becomes the gatekeeper for all online communications and individuals get an impoverished, restricted, innovation-killing, personal-data-harvesting crumb of Internet from the table of one of the richest companies in the world.
Google’s monopoly is different. It has amazing insights into our personal lives, friends, habits and personalities. It is hard to spend ten minutes browsing the web without encountering Doubleclick advertising/tracking, Google advertising/tracking, Google Analytics, embedded YouTube videos, Google+ images, embedded Google maps, Google docs, Google search, Google APIs, Google fonts… the list is extraordinary. Few people know that they interact with Google on a huge proportion of sites that they visit, even if they never use Google search. Billions of people being tracked via trillions of clicks, searches and cookies. This is a major threat to the democratic nature of the Internet, if we consider security expert Bruce Schneier’s warning that ‘someone who knows things about us has some measure of control over us, and someone who knows everything about us has a lot of control over us’.
This monopoly power is real. It is real power. Facebook says its terms of service allows it to manipulate users’ moods for ‘research’ purposes. Facebook censors content in surprising and unpredictable ways. It has been demonstrated that both Google and Facebook have the power to manipulate elections. This power carries very little, if any, responsibility for these companies. Power without responsibility is corrosive and corrupting. Always. Our political ‘leaders’ naively and recklessly issue populist calls for this power to be used to fight terrorism, hate speech, child abuse, copyright infringements – not only failing to address this concentration of power but actively encouraging it. This is short-sighted and dangerous.
The threat of this centralisation is clear and growing. Facebook’s censorship tools are imposed in an ‘arbitrary and capricious’ way by the company, according to one article in the Economist. Both Facebook and Google implement the US’s Digital Millennium Copyright Act on a global level, allowing easy options for political censorship, as shown, for example, by censorship-by-copyright of videos critical of Brazilian presidential candidate Aécio Neves and of content, such as documentaries that were critical of Ecuadorian officials.
Similarly, in the UK, the Blocked.org.uk project run by the Open Rights Group found that 11% of the top 1000 sites (as ranked by Alexa) were blocked by the default ‘parental controls’ settings of at least one UK internet provider. Blocked sites included a watch-making business, a women’s rights page, a designer clothes page, a political blog on the Syrian war and a Porsche brokerage.
In December, the EU will launch its ‘internet forum’ with a flurry of happy press releases. In this forum, tech giants work on non-legislative liability-free ways that private companies can use to restrict access to unwanted content. What could possibly go wrong? Why not ask companies - that have neither the legitimacy nor the expertise to do the job properly – to blunder into a socially, racially, politically dangerous environment to take whatever measures seem like they might be a good idea? Again, what could possibly go wrong?
The Internet is democratic, open, challenging, diverse and robust. EDRi exists because of our commitment to keep it this way.