Digital culture didn´t turn out democratic

The short history of the Internet is the story of how idealism and democratic hopes were replaced by cynicism and systematic surveillance. Along the way we were given Facebook and convinced one another that there is no conflict between surveillance and democracy. But there is.

The Internet was still in its infancy in the second half of the nineties. Up to the beginning of the ‘00s, the general opinion towards it was markedly optimistic. The Internet would democratize the world, because everybody could give and receive information. Dictators fall when the oppressed find each other and communicate directly with the outside world. Or so we hoped. And in the free world, we finally stood at the vanguard of an enlightened democracy, where knowledge was not commercial, but a vehicle for a genuine debate culture. Or so we thought.

Optimism manifest itself through the metaphor we used to describe the Web: We called it the “global village”. The Danish author Tor Nørretrander opined in 1997 that the Web was the “ultimate information democracy.” And later, in 2000, US President Bill Clinton claimed that the Internet would democratize China. These are just examples of the optimism that prevailed in the culture, in science and in politics. The Web could not be controlled and conventional wisdom held that it was a democratizing factor for that reason alone. It has been a long time since anyone has called the Web a “global village.” Our experiences have shown otherwise.

Nowadays we have to admit that China provides a frightening example of how the Internet provides effective technology when a state chooses to spy on its citizens and control their access to information. We must also admit that China is not the only problem. When Edward Snowden leaked documents from the US National Security Agency in June 2013, it became evident to everyone just how extensively the US monitors its population – and its allies. Snowden launched a principle debate about the interrelationships between state surveillance, an open democratic society and the right to privacy.

Nobody would argue that the Internet does not have enormous potential, and that it has already improved many things for us. We must, however, face the fact that the Internet not only promotes democracy, it also does the opposite. In December 2009 a change occurred, one that has had the greatest effect on our digital culture and, in turn, our democracy: The personalized Web. When you – most likely unwittingly – began to use the new Google in 2009, you entered a trade agreement: You got a personalized Web; but, the price was that you do not get to choose what information is most relevant for you. Google changed the algorithm that determines what you see – or don’t see – when you seek information.

Have you recently clicked “Like” or shared a story about the gigantic problems regarding starvation and malnutrition in today’s Africa? According to statistics, you probably haven’t. Have you recently clicked “Like” or shared a humorous ad or self-realization slogan such as, “Love yourself as you are”? Statistics indicate you most likely have.

Now, there is nothing essentially wrong with sharing something familiar, funny or even trivial. What is problematic is how our digital habits are used to select future ads, information and news for us. In other words, you get more of the same every time you search for new knowledge in your digital newspaper or log in to Facebook: less Africa, more self realization. The real problem begins when we realize how the prerequisite for a personalized Web is mass surveillance of our digital lives.

Most of us do not give the personalized Web concept nor mass surveillance a thought, but we will hopefully begin to do so. “Internet activists” certainly hope we will. Internet activists are still a new and marginally-known phenomenon. The name perfectly fits the cause. We’re talking about a grass-roots movement that wants to democratize the Web. They want to do so by making the Web neutral, as opposed to personalized, so others cannot determine what we see or don’t see. And not least, they want to limit corporate and governmental possibilities for surveilling our digital lives.

Eli Pariser is a prominent Internet activist who has written the primer for many critics of the personalized Web: The Filter Bubble: How the New Personalized Web is Changing What We Read and How We Think. The “filter bubble” is your personalized digital universe. Within that filter bubble you get the information companies have filtered for you. That is the digital reality for all of us. According to Pariser, the consequences of the personalized Web pertain to how it threatens two fundamental democratic values: we lose our perception of what information is important to us as a society; and, it limits how much we relate to others’ opinions and circumstances. This is a well-established phenomenon in the realm of psychology, how a markedly homogeneous group tends to be intolerant and aggressive toward other individuals and opinions. Nowadays, unrefined and undemocratic debates in social media are visible to all. Even the Danish prime minister has warned about how the tone in digital media can be so brutal that the objective of exchanging points of view disappears.

Some believe Pariser exaggerates the impact of the personalized Web. But there can be no doubt that we have only seen the beginning, and that the personalized Web will be a future Internet fixture. Google CEO Eric Schmidt has blatantly said that technology will be so refined that it will become very difficult for people to view or use something that has not, in one way or another, been tailor-made for them.

The prerequisite for a personalized Web is mass monitoring that occurs through the collection and analysis of metadata, which is data about how you use digital media, for instance, whom you call on the phone. It is not data about the content of your communications, that is, what you actually talk about on the phone. Contemporary digital surveillance is different from espionage and the monitoring of individuals as we know it from the activities of traditional intelligence agencies. Metadata is certainly used by intelligence agencies that utilize it when composing precise profiles of individuals’ behavior and intentions – profiles they are not reluctant to use actively. As the former head of CIA, Michael Hayden, said last year: “We kill people based on metadata.”

To be sure, a quote like that from the CIA puts the issue into sharp focus, as anybody can identify it as extreme. Routine daily monitoring is just as extreme, though less visible. Robert Scheer, an American professor of communication, has recently released the book, “They Know Everything About You.” Scheer is known in the US for exposing and criticizing governmental mass surveillance. In the new book, Scheer indicates just how closely private companies and governments cooperate on the exchange of data – even when they deny doing so. There can be no doubt that mass surveillance occurs. Since 2002, different Danish governments have approved three terror-legislation packages, which constantly expand digital surveillance, for instance by monitoring all telephone records. What worries Scheer is how the vast majority is apparently apathetic to this. Historically, this is a new form for apathy.

Democracies have traditionally considered mass surveillance as being incompatible with democracy. But today we willingly let ourselves be monitored. According to Scheer, this is because governments have succeeded in convincing us that surveillance is something compatible with democracy. Surveillance creates security and safety, is their argument, an explanation populations have been willing to swallow. We are especially willing to let ourselves be monitored to a higher degree after emotional events such as a terrorist attack. The price of security is our privacy. Scheer believes the price is too high, one main reason being how there are few examples showing that surveillance has prevented occurrences such as terrorist attacks. Among other points, he explains how 9/11 could have been prevented by traditional intelligence activities, and why mass surveillance would not have helped. Scheer also contends that privacy is a fundamental prerequisite for a democracy, and for that reason alone mass surveillance is not compatible with democracy.

When we accept monitoring, it is also due to another factor. The digital culture offers us iPhone, Facebook, Google and all the other tempting and often irresistible technologies. We can own them and hold them in our hands. The price we pay is invisible and abstract: our privacy. Perhaps we sold our privacy only because we were not aware that democracy itself had been thrown into the deal? Democracy needs activism, as it has so many times throughout history. What companies and governments are able to find out about us should be public knowledge, mass surveillance should be limited, and nobody other than ourselves should determine what information we see or do not see. Internet activists have set these objectives for a democratic digital culture. And it sounds fair enough.

Published in Kristeligt Dagblad, April 25th 2015

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