Law in the Internet Society

From Right to Information to Real-Time Information: Case Against Convenience

-- By ArjunJoshi - 05 Dec 2019

Scrolling... wait, what?

A month ago, Namrata and I were walking past Hamilton Deli and I expressed my urge to get a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. She said I’ve had too much sugar, and I proceeded to make my case by talking about the fair labour practices of Ben & Jerry’s which even Bernie Sanders acknowledges. I failed and went home. A creature of habit, in the few seconds I had to spend in the elevator, I opened Instagram. In between a picture of a dog trying to bite its tail and another of a football star recovering from his injury, I saw a Ben & Jerry’s advertisement. Had it been any other time, I would have been uncomfortable, but scrolled down nonetheless. But it wasn’t to be. After hearing Jake, who deleted Instagram and Facebook, I decided I should quit too. While I understand that this one-off act does not imply that I am ‘out of sight-out of mind’, but it marked an important step towards educating myself (apart from this course).

For far too long, was I consumed by this mechanical drill, where even a walk from my room to the kitchen would involve a brief look at an Instagram story, or a Facebook update. In his book, Tim Wu calls this the “industrialisation of human attention capture”. So it has been diagnosed. The tech companies, advertising agencies and data brokers have a range of measures to track users on the web. Cookies, fingerprints, data trails by location and other indicators and the small share button which make third-party webpages accessible for Facebook, Google and the like.

If I were to take our class as a sample of the general sentiment, it would be reasonable to conclude that people are comfortable to let the big tech watch us (when they end up with cross-platform ultra-specific ad recommendations, for example). It is easy to dismiss, an otherwise eerie feeling, because there is a dependence on these companies, their services, and the convenience they offer.

The way users have attributed Alexa, Siri, Hello Google and others with anthropomorphic qualities, transforms their surveillance into benevolence. Their recommendations, of any kind, seems like a bond – as if it knows us and our interests (which of course they know, for reasons unstated).

And of these companies, their endless storage of our quirks, flaws, and very identities feels roughly akin to being cared for as a person. After all, it’s hard to criticise something that not only is so “nice” to us but that has rendered us dependent to the degree that it might make us uncomfortable to acknowledge that very dependence.

The RTI Transformation - Acronym Retained, Meaning Lost...

Another component is the relationship between big tech and governments. This leads me to believe, following from David Carrol that our data needs to be reclaimed now more than ever. A case in point is the amendment introduced by the Indian government to dilute the Right to Information Act. The original Act had quantified the tenures, and defined the salaries in terms of existing benchmarks. The amendments are being viewed as implying that, in effect, the terms of appointment, salaries and tenures of the Chief Information Commissioners and Information Commissioners can be decided on a case-to-case basis by the government. The Opposition has argued that this will take away the independence of the RTI authorities. On the other hand, in December 2018, India’s Home Ministry released a notification which empowers ten government agencies to intercept, monitor or decrypt any information generated, transmitted, received or stored in any computer resource, such as social media. The authorisation for such surveillance must be given by the Home Secretary, who works directly under the government. The combined effect is that the government holds the remote control not only on any medium that can be used to surveil us but also on our ability to find out any details linked to the surveillance.

Embedded in this opacity, is the shift from the right to information (RTI) to real-time information (RTI). The activity of targeting individuals will only become more popular and probably more involved and this is possible because private companies are hand-in-glove with the government.

Apologise for the Inconvenience Caused.

One of the most pernicious long-term side effects of such a culture of mass surveillance is that it tends to change the very fabric of society by turning its individuals into scared little automatons. Knowing that my data could contain a thousand ways of incriminating me, it doesn’t take a Sartre to predict that I will naturally alter how I behave. I’m likely to become less individualistic, less willing to speak my mind, and deathly afraid of challenging the status quo.

China’s social credit system is a harrowing real time reminder of this very phenomenon in action. Its citizens are subjected to merciless surveillance which has the effect of moulding them into “model citizens” petrified of stepping out of the narrow path of acceptable behaviour. Its creepy hierarchy of citizens and its spectrum of rewards and punishments has the uncanny feel of a dystopian alternate reality.

The truth is, the “but I have nothing to hide!” rationalisation is simply evidence of the truncation of critical thought. It’s a failure of imagination and consequently, we are consenting to putting our privacy up for sale and to laying our bare identities at the feet of those in power to scavenge through and even, to manipulate.

In Snowden’s memoir Permanent Record, he reveals a razor-sharp truth: “The data we generate just by living — or just by letting ourselves be surveilled while living — would enrich private enterprise and impoverish our private existence in equal measure. If government surveillance was having the effect of turning the citizen into a subject, at the mercy of state power, then corporate surveillance was turning the consumer into a product, which corporations sold to other corporations, data brokers, and advertisers.”

In essence, we’re facing a pretty severe power imbalance. Our right to privacy is hardly acknowledged. The new normal has become transparency of our private selves, an exchange we didn’t really know we were making. Government officials and corporate executives alike ferret out the loopholes in the Constitution or just brazenly steamroll over them.

Power is timelessly seductive. And presently, the power is piled at the very top. Technology has been a great benefactor of society, but if it’s a tool that can be used for positive aims, it can just as well be utilized for negative ones. Technology can be a tremendous weapon depending on who holds it in their hands. The only way to ensure that the full powers of technology are not abused is to wrest it from those that have wrongfully acquired our digital DNA. The consequences are too dire.

What the draft needs most is focus. Starting from ice cream is a surprisingly frequent trope in Columbia Law School student essays, in my experience, but it pays off infrequently. This draft lurches away from ice cream in Harlem to the Modi government's detailed trifling with the Indian right to information system, to the Indian version of the global problem of state ambitions to decrypt and analyze their entire society's "social media," to the Chinese social credit system. The overall point is clear: "we're facing a pretty severe power imbalance." But that wasn't much of an advance on where we were at the outset.

Rewriting should begin from the center. What is your important idea here? State it clearly and briefly at the top. Show where it comes from, how you support it, so you can then show the reader where it leads you. Make all the joints tight, so you can carry the reader along with you from sentence to sentence. You want to convince, which requires clarity above all.

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r2 - 12 Jan 2020 - 10:06:43 - EbenMoglen
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