Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Some Thoughts On Our Lack of Control in the Digital Age

This weekend, for reasons still not fully explained to me, Google blocked access to my blog and my corresponding gmail account for suspicion of "violating the terms of the user agreement." After being locked out of my email account and denied access to any of my writings that I had posted, I was given an opportunity to challenge my suspension from Google's services. Needless to say, the matter was fortunately resolved after about a 12 hour time span- I recieved an automated email from Google saying that an error had been made and the issue had been resolved, though no further explanation was given.

While this may have been just a random mistake, it nevertheless was a disconcerting reminder of how little control we truly have over the modes of communication and the dissemination of information. It is widely-held liberal truism that the expansion of the internet and communication technology is an overwhelming "good" thing for us and our socio-political institutions. We are not only afforded more and better economic opportunities, but there are numerous benefits for us as social beings to connect and engage with one another and to be better informed and educated, which will in turn "open up" our societies and make them more democratic, or so we are told. This is a belief expounded by the likes of Thomas Friedman and many others in the media and communications industry, not to mention many of those who lead our political institutions, who all have a direct stake involved in propagating this idea.

Obviously, as someone who has his own blog and regularly spends hours each day on social media and internet news sites, I do have some sympathy in this regard. But of course, this matter is a bit more complicated than this rosy picture so often painted for us. Evgeny Morozov is an excellent blogger for Foreign Policy whose research is centered precisely on the issue of communications technology and politics, and both he and I share a more skeptical perspective on this matter. From his blog's About section he writes,
Even a cursory look at top technology issues facing us today -- from Internet censorship to online surveillance to cyberwarfare -- makes it clear that technology poses almost as many threats as opportunities. Most interestingly, we see authoritarian regimes gain proficiency with the Internet and actively turn it to their own advantage -- a phenomenon I dub the "spinternet". Even more disturbingly, many of these more sinister activities happen very quietly, while the public gets overly excited about edgier issues like cyber-spies.
Morozov does an excellent job highlighting how regimes like Russia not only subtly mislead and manipulate their populations with news media and the internet, but also actually channel and intensify already-existing nationalistic and authoritarian sentiments towards their own political ends. However I think he is at his best when dissecting what he calls "slacktivism"- the type of "digital activism" via Facebook, Twitter, and other social media that "make us feel very useful and important but have zero social impact." Slacktivism can also be seen as not only having little positive effect, but may actually serve to undermine more effective means of social action by making citizens less eager to take part in real (and more risky) expressions of direct action.

Of course, it's easy to highlight how conventional authoritarian regimes like China use the internet and social media to control their population, but alas, even so-called democracies including the United States and the United Kingdom are guilty of this as well. In the same year Western liberals hailed the so-called "twitter revolution" in Iran, an activist was arrested in Pittsburgh during the G-20 summit protests for using twitter to report on police activity. Furthermore, like Morozov I think we should be very skeptical of the US government's efforts to "help create supply of US ideas on the Internet" to better "brand" itself for both foreign and domestic populations, much like corporations do.

But what I'm most concerned about is the fact that as we are increasingly being pushed into the digital age, we have little to no real ownership, oversight, or control over these sources of media and communication that are taking an ever-more important role in our lives. The right to freely have access to and disseminate information is a fundamental political right and a necessity for a functioning democratic society, but there is very little public and regulation to ensure that this right is not only properly respected, but indeed that it can best serve the public interest. Instead, private corporate interests not only maintain full ownership rights over the electronic media they control and can thus dictate their own policies within the law, but can have an incredible effect on influencing what law there is to regulate their behavior through political lobbying and indeed using their own media influence to advocate for their cause.

Now, I don't wish to delve too far into this matter as it's far too complex to properly address in a blog post that has already perhaps gone on too long... But I would like to say that the very nature of intellectual, artistic, and digital "property" (each category of which has its own similarities and differences) has certain characteristics that fundamentally seem to deny their compatibility with how we traditionally understand and define property rights. (Which of course doesn't even take into account the myriad difficulties with "traditional property rights" that a radical leftist or anarchist could cite.) But furthermore, and perhaps even more importantly, there seems to be a normative case for ensuring that something so fundamental as the free exchange of ideas and information via the internet or other communication technology (and everything tied in with this) is managed, perhaps even "owned," by the very public that uses and relies upon this technology.

Currently, there are two main fronts in which this struggle for control over the internet and communication technology is being waged. First regards the issue of digital rights, which is a broad field that encompasses issues of ownership, privacy, access, and expression, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation has been a progressive advocate at the forefront of this matter. Secondly is the issue of network neutrality, which is more narrowly defined and regards user access to digital content, and in the United States the organization Free Press is a key player in this fight against corporate interests.

Of course, I can't end this post without discussing Google's role in all of this. Google does make a point (like many in the tech industry) of presenting itself as ethical and responsible, but it is nevertheless a private corporation with its own interests that sometimes conflict with what can be understood as the broader public good. Accordingly, there are a number of issues that lead some to question the organization's unofficial motto of "Do No Evil." Privacy concerns have been at the center of the controversy surrounding Google, especially regarding Google Maps (particularly the street view feature), GMail, and its new social networking feature Buzz. Most interestingly I think regards Google's foray into intellectual property rights, as the company has been digitizing books for years now and placing them into its online database. While this may be viewed as a positive means of increasing access to these materials, there is also some concern regarding the extent of Google's ownership rights of these texts (especially those whose copyrights have expired or were in the public domain to begin with) once it has them in its database, making it the center of some controversy and a lawsuit. Finally, there is increasing concern that Google is achieving monopoly status as it encroaches more and more into our lives and society, effectively summarized in this video (which does have English narration).

The point of all this is that we must first be aware of all of this, and secondly we must strive for more control and autonomy with regards not only to our internet and media access, but in every other facet of our lives. And this furthermore calls for a radical reshaping of our social, economic, and political institutions to truly represent the values of a peaceful and just world. This of course isn't something that can be easily achieved in and of itself, but steps can be taken and progress can be made. I have taken a rather critical stance so far towards Google, but for convenience's sake (at least for the time being) I won't be changing the format of this blog any time soon, though I will still continue to use and support independent, alternative sources of internet media and explore options of open-source software. However, one shouldn't focus too closely on particular areas of change while missing the bigger picture, just as one shouldn't become too overwhelmed by the grand struggle and skip over the smaller foci of change- such is the difficulty that we face.

1 comment:

  1. Google's range of Internet dominance goes even further than the things you mentioned, Reed. But you're spot on with this post. I'll try to send you a piece I wrote on Google's growing stranglehold on the ever-changing Internet landscape.