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-- NamrataMaheshwari - 09 Oct 2019

Our Internet and Our Democracy

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

Max Weber defined the state as a "human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a territory". The internet (as it is and not as it ought to have been), however, posed a challenge to such a characterization of force and monopoly of the state. It gave rise to a new kind of virtual force with almost no territorial boundaries. A few corporations held immense power over information dissemination shaping human behavior and communication, and the state did not have any monopoly or arguably even significant control over this force. Naturally, the state wanted in on this unprecedented scope for surveillance and manipulation of data. And as it has been observed, the collection of data of billions of people in the hands of a few makes its misuse inevitable.

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. One does not need to look long or hard to find instances of authoritarian leaders in a democracy co-opting the power of the oligopoly comprising 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

In the path the internet has taken to arrive where it is today and in the form it will assume moving forward, there are four key stakeholders: (i) the technology / social media companies; (ii) the proponents of free software; (iii) the government / political leaders; and (iv) individuals as consumers / users / citizens. 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.

The purpose of emphasizing on the original intent behind the internet is to urge that even though we cannot go back, any movement for a new internet ought to use the original intent as a guiding light, lest we make the same mistakes again. As the old adage goes, those who forget history are condemned to repeat it. And the way to think about how to move forward would be ill-informed without lessons from past experience.

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. Any ideation on the formulation of the new net should treat this aspect as being non-negotiable. For 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. We need to start paying attention to what we are paying attention to and how that attention is being manipulated. Sustained engagement, technological education to encourage collaborative redesign of free software, and changing patterns in online behavior would perhaps propel the change we need. Until we prevent corporations and political parties from colonizing our minds, democracy may be working its way backward to a different kind of colonization; or worse still, to the Orwellian 1984.



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r4 - 13 Oct 2019 - 21:22:52 - NamrataMaheshwari
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