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The Internet – a New Escape From Freedom?

Published on July 25, 2010 by: in: Society

Perpetually repeated by the media and politicians phrase “we gain safety at the cost of liberty” is just another false package deal which is forced on an ordinary bulk consumer. Whereas the price can be drastically and palpably sensed, the benefit – the mythical public safety – seems to be a bit illusory.

The words “Internet” and “liberty” have been constantly repeated over past few years, they appear in almost every public discussion whose topic is vital social issues. Apparently there is no possibility of discussing civil rights, social diagnosis, business models or the country’s prospects without entering the topic of the Internet. We can only wonder if this approach ensues from the reliable endeavour to understand and describe the world or if it is just a trend, mainfolding catchy slogans on copy – paste basis. Let us be more optimistic and suppose that the simple but key thought for understanding the reality has cut through the public debate: since some time the boundary between the digital world and the real one is just a phraseological limit. The Internet is a field for real social life: it is a key communication tool and vehicle of information, massive potentials for business, new challenges in settling conflicts and lastly: new forms of functioning in society.

Since our life in all of its dimensions – private, social, professional or political one – has been added into this sphere and is happening there, it is high time the Internet would function as a constant point of reference in our collective thinking of the country and the community. In this coordinate system an individual has to appear: the issue of its position in the system, of guaranteeing its principal rights and liberties. The fact that the Internet and the field of social interaction are often the same – so the same social and legal rules should apply to both – does not necessarily mean that we have got rid of the trouble with liberty from the era “before the Internet”. And that is why I will not belittle the question: what is happening with the liberty on the Internet? But I would rephrase it to a more realistic one: what is happening with our liberty in the conditions of  informational society? And what is the Internet’s influence on the understanding of a given communication technology?

A new liberty crisis or still the same consumption escape?

It is hard to resist the impression that we – as a society and as individuals – are undergoing a severe liberty crisis. The media keep on informing us about the lack of interest in the privacy protection among young people leading their social lives on Facebook; it is no longer appropriate to seriously pose a question of the role of the media in providing reliable information; the fall of public debate is a fact we regret to state; human rights are minimised to a toothless phrase, and the wars for “our common safety” declared by politicians are becoming more and more cynical. We can enumerate multiple examples. Where does that indifference to the lack of values and the consent to the lack of tools to fight for anything come from? Who is responsible for the situation? Is it the state, because it does not regulate enough and does not protect our rights against our own officials, politicians who stipulate the rules or the international corporations? Or is it perhaps the business, as it consequently avoids regulations and supports unethical and not very transparent solutions? Or is it ourselves, as we choose to focus on our own affairs and we do not care where the abstract society or the – totally figurative, though – world are going?

Such questions do not reach beyond the level of multiple truisms: the authorities function in a small realm of an election cycle; the state – as a regulative and administrative apparatus – cannot tangle with international corporations like Google; the purpose of business is to generate income, not to solve the social issues. Nevertheless, we have a viable problem: we are gradually losing the control of who makes the rules and what the rules are. And it happens not only in social and political dimension, but more and more often – through the influence of the media or behavioural marketing – on the private or even intimate field. The fact that seldom it is us who decide and manipulate, translates simply into narrowing our sphere of autonomy and self-determination, contributes to a gradual erosion of liberty. Since the stake is so high, perhaps we should go beyond the truism level and genuinely deliberate where does this lack of (capability of? need to?) control over the game rules come from?

We cannot exclude the possibility that we are observing nothing more than just a logical continuation of well-known consumptive escape from liberty depicted by Fromm, so there is nothing new under the sun. We can doubt, though, that we do not truly know what we are doing in specific conditions of informational asymmetry which are created by modern technology. It is doubtful if the society in its bulk is aware of the progressive erosion of control mechanisms of economic and political process, which happen by dint of the Internet or if everyone of us individually has the sense that he is the one who makes a choice. I intend to look into the matter by going through 3 basic motivations, for which – if the media message is to be trusted – people choose the loss of control over their personal information, style of consumption, the functioning of the coercive force and in consequence the life itself: the sense of community, safety and convenience?

The urge for community

A human being – a social being – wants affiliation, interaction, sense that they are not alone; I will not reject that. In the world of communication acceleration, the atomisation and the dissolution of primary bonds we must look for the new ways of realising the need. Without any doubt the way we interact, the kind of the interactions and their profundity have changed since we started functioning (at least most of the society did) in the rhythm dictated by the city and the competitive market. Quasi-communities and communities of a new kind are created based on ranges of interests, lifestyle, professional group affiliation. The possibilities created by such tools as Twitter, social network services (including those for professionals and groups of enthusiasts), Internet forums and instant messaging clients in addition to a terminal in every mobile phone are monstrous. Nevertheless, when there are opportunities, the requirements also appear. The new communities are, just like their prototypes, changeable and dynamic. To maintain the sense of affiliation one has to keep being in constant contact – “being visible”, monitoring what others are up to, hunting for the occasion of some more intimate interactions. Communication isolation means being ruled out of society, a social death. In such social life it is the technology what sets the limits of participation.

The change is clearly visible in a lately published report “Młodzi i Media” (“The young and the Media”): the researchers depicted a deep transformation of forms of “being together” through so-called new media, which from just a way of communicating transforms to a specific world in which emotions take place and do not need to come out. Pressing the “Like” button to express interest in one’s status on Facebook or uploading a photo becomes a form of contact equal to talks over coffee. The price for the easiness of contact and the variety of its form is the loss of control over one’s personal information, giving up one’s profile – which in conditions of the new media is nothing else but user’s social persona – to the web mechanisms. What results from that for our liberty? We gain a new way of “staying together”, but we pay a calculable price for it. Above a certain level, the participation in culture or social debate is not possible without the access to the Internet. And it is so with all its consequences for our informational autonomy, with the awareness,that our every move leaves an irremovable digital trace.

The media and corporations like Facebook keep remaiding us that the young do not care about their privacy, that they have exchanged it long ago for the realisations of a basic need of participation. It is not clearly verified by the research conducted lately by some American universities. The studies show that although the borders of privacy have been redefined, in the consciousness of people from Facebook, MySpace or Twitter generation there still exists a clear boundary where intimacy begins and they do not want to share it with just anybody. Neither random people on the Internet nor analysts (in human or AI form) employed by the Internet corporations. The limitation of privacy on the Internet is often described as a simple package deal: some personal info in exchange for affinity to a community, participation in culture, a better access to information. With this in view it is easy to devise an analogy to “the old world”: after all, in a traditional community people knew everything about one another; everything what (in the opinion of the majority, not the individual) was necessary to function collectively. However, this analogy does not stand a basic test. In the case of social network services we are not dealing with sharing one’s intimacy in the group of, 20, 200, or 1200 acquaintances – even then we could ask an arguable question about the sense of community and affiliation – but with a machine which enlists, converts and commercially uses information on a huge scale. Facebook is not just a modern incarnation of community, it is a potent profit-oriented corporation.

Facebook has recently reached the record number of 500 million users. What can we conclude pursuant to a detailed report of lives of 500 million people, conclude about the consumption, social or political trends? What is the business potential of a set of 500 million detailed consumer profiles? These are purely rhetorical questions. A specimen of those capabilities we can observe in the moments of consecutive abuses of information: Facebook, MySpace, Amazon and many others have been unintentionally transmitting users’ personal data to advertiser; Facebook changes default settings of privacy in the whole service overnight, thus all the data of 2/3 of American users, who carelessly clicked ‘I accept’ button, end up in the system; Amazon adjusts prices of its books to the financial resources of individual users, estimated on the basis of their history of purchases, and so on, and so forth.

Facing the scale and the dynamism of this phenomena – a specific commercialisation of privacy, simultaneously to the progressive addiction to the digital technology as catalyst of social life – we are left with a question: what is the quality of this community, which we are trying to implement in the digital realm, and what is the price we pay for this particular product?

The craving for safety

I will not try to discuss the fact that fear is humane and the need of safety is entirely justified. We are afraid of terrorist attacks, financial frauds, cybercrime, paedophilia and many other things. Nevertheless, claiming that does not mean that we are ready to give up our personal liberty for the sense of control over various threats. Not just the sense of liberty, but completely real civil rights and liberties: bodily inviolability, freedom of movement, secrecy of correspondence, privacy and finally  dignity itself. Such compromise, contrary to common opinion, is not consulted with the society. Perpetually repeated by the media and politicians phrase “we gain safety at the cost of liberty” is just another false package deal which is forced on an ordinary bulk consumer. Whereas the price can be drastically and palpably sensed, the benefit – the mythical public safety – seems to be a bit illusory.

Since Beck formulated the theory of risk society not much has changed: the endeavours to prevail over various dangers still generate side effects in the shape of new hazards. Since the special services, politic cabinets and parliamentary assemblies in various configurations and places on the globe declared war on terror, we have been facing not a smaller issue, but a greater one on the scale of the phenomenon. What follows is greater safety expenditure, new investments in the technological arms race and profound  constraints forced on us as a potential sources of threat.

The persisting logic of prevention based on the belief that in the war with an invisible enemy everyone is suspicious, affects not only our liberty on streets, in shops or at airport.

Various tolls of mass surveillance are blooming in the Internet, always in the context of enhancing safety and sacrificing certain values for the common good. More and more perfect systems analysing data are being tested, like famous Carnivore, new scientific and research projects are being designed, whose aims is to develop even better tools of tracing movement on the Net – like for instance Project Indect (in which Polish AGH University of Science and Technology has the lead), the Internet filtering infrastructure is being installed, services and users are being blocked. The technological specificity of the Internet as a communication tool creates and equalizes potential for the unimpeded exchange of information, as well as for a ‘totalitarian’ effect of it. None of the extremes is possible to implement: neither it is possible that everyone will gain the access to everything, nor that any political or economic power will manage to obtain a total control of the Net. In this respects, it seems righteous to identify the Internet with the space of liberty. However, on the entirely practical level – from the point of view of an ordinary European Internet user – an open battle for the control over information is being played right now. The key actor of it is the European Union whose strategy for the next few years, the so-called Stockholm policy, assumes preventive and implemented on a great scale gathering of any information about the citizens which can be obtained in a digital form; the strategy which has been called by its own creators “a digital tsunami”.

The European debate in next few months on the retention of telecommunication data will be a great battle. The precise question is: should we keep the obligation to arrest the traffic on the Internet in a present range, or to narrow it down. Currently, Polish Internet operators and the providers of publicly available telecommunication services are obliged to store for two years all the data which is necessary to establish who, when, where and with whom connected or tried to connect via the Internet. We are talking about ca. 60 kinds of data constituting digital traces left by users throughout the world. The obligation to retain information is enforced by the European Union on the Member States. Within the war with the threat of terrorism it was decided that the detailed data on the Web activity of every user would be retained, then stored to provide security services access to them if needed. Some Member States, including Poland, have ardently implemented this obligation in even wider a range than it could be expected by the sole instruction – currently the data of the traffic on the Internet is retained for the criminal prevention and the access to them is granted to all special services without the supervision of public prosecutor or court.

The organisations defending human rights demand a change of binding rules: from the belief that everyone of us carries a bomb in our bag to the old-fashioned presumption of innocence. The transmission data should not be stored ‘just in case’, but at most protected for presumptive trials and made accessible only during them under the public prosecutor’s office or court supervision. How much we manage to win in the issue of the change of current retention directive will be an important symptom of political mode; it will be a test if the first enchantment by the digital antidote for fear is already gone and if we are ready to come back to a serious debate about human and civil rights guarantee also in the realm of the Internet. Meanwhile we are faced with a question: whose life is safer in the conditions of a digital tsunami, common invigilation and putting the regulative screw on the Internet services providers? For whom is it politically beneficial, and who eventually pays the price – completely calculable for economy  – for the crusades under the banner of the public safety in the digital world?

The thirst for comfort

I will not question either the thesis that a human being always strives for a better life – easier, cheaper, more comfortable. That is confirmed by the crazy pace in which services adjusted to the individual needs of everyone of us are multiplying. Or rather: by how fast the spectrum of services is created, which – according to a precisely shaped profiles of potential receivers – construct needs and create the demand for themselves. The question what was first – the need or the service satisfying it, is not just a dialectic game, but a reason for a debate on the borderline of our self-determination. If it is so vital that it is mostly the market that creates needs and coerces submitting oneself to trends, there  a question of liberty must emerge. Do we agree that the creation of needs, thus a specific manipulation on the freedom of choice, is accomplished by all means and without limits? Do we agree that all of our weaknesses, fears, insecurities, stereotypes and cognitive limitations are used as a “trade leverage”, a catalyst for the collective and individual will to purchase? On the Internet the question is exceptionally topical.

The Internet itself technologically is a specific communication service or a package of communication solutions. In this respect it is a service which can be shaped in various ways and not necessary in those known for the passive Internet users nowadays. The limits of perception of an intermediate net surfer are designed by service providers, who design for them instant solutions  – e-mail, instant messaging clients, systems of documents management, Web browsers, etc. The Internet as an open space of technological possibilities reaches far beyond the grim landscape of a few closed business models. The Net gives the possibility of organising communication horizontally, based on the P2P model, but also hierarchically. This model organises the transmission of data between the devices of remote users via the server. What is the cardinal difference? In the model of horizontal diffuse communication, the information packages are transmitted between users freely, without the control of a third party; in a hierarchical Net server works as a junction, creating perfect means of control of the information flow.

Obviously, one does not have to use the possibility. Information may flow unseen , unregistered and unfiltered. But it may be the other way round. The model of advanced data control on the Internet would be chosen not only by China; it is used freely by private companies which gather, save, scan, process and draw conclusions from the data flowing through their servers. For what? Basically, to be able to offer us – the passive consumers – as much comfort of using their up-to-date services as possible and to design the new ones in such a way that will anticipate our expectations and lure us into plunging deeper into the network of related applications… As the statistics show it is quite effective. It is estimated that as much as 30% of the traffic on the Internet goes through servers of just a few corporations. How has it come to that? Using the method of small, but well-thought steps. It began in the time of expansion of the Internet beyond the elite group of the initiated in technology. The new-coming users sought for instant solutions, simple interfaces which would help them to find their feet in this virgin space. The corporations which came up with what accessible trail to blaze through the Internet and how to sell it to the yardbirds control the market of communication networking services today. Those pioneers had also the choice of the model of data transmission: they could design the service, e.g. e-mail without the redirection of the Internet traffic through their servers as Skype did, and it still functions without the central junctures. However, most of them chose the system based on powerful servers which they not only provide for with tremendous expenditure, but most importantly – control. Why? The key-word to understanding the rules of the Internet’s logic in its commercial version is obviously information.

In any business the potential information equals money. In the Internet business run on a mass scale it is vital to know with great certainty how our advertisement’s target will react to a given product. The difference of just a sole pixel in the layout of a banner can translate into millions of clicks – millions of income. The more advanced (and integrated) services such as e-mail, document management systems, instant messaging clients, VoIP or social networking websites are offered by a given company, the greater the flow of personal data through its servers and the more the company knows about its client. The giants such as Google, who disposes of full profiles of millions of clients based on myriads of available services, have the potential for experimentation incomparable to any institute of mass observation or media house. That informational power simply and verifiably translates into the value of their shares.

What is wrong with the fact that well-managed companies investing in the newest technology earn heaps by taking advantage of the informational predominance? Probably nothing, as long as their main capital – the information coming from us, the users, information about our lifestyle, sexual or colour preferences, state of health or the content of wallet – is not used against us. But where is the boundary where the ethical marketing turns into sheer manipulation and a useful service into a tool of oppression? That is a very well-stated question.

We have stepped into a stage of new services – of smart management of the clients’ needs. From self-servicing washing machines and fridges to jogging shoes  which, thanks to a sensor connected remotely to the Web, not only help to design one’s training but also instantly incorporate us into the Internet community of digitally competing joggers. Google begins to offer individualised service of medical diagnosis or cheap access to medicaments online. Supposedly, we are heading to the moment when a yoghurt equipped with RFID sensor will be able to direct us (namely our mobile phone connected to the Internet) to a respective shelf in a supermarket to speed up finding it, or at least to properly advertise itself. Also reportedly Google considers the possibility of entering the market as a hedge fund to make the most of its unbelievable informational potential in the process of risk assessment.

Perhaps we are heading to a new era of regulation challenges and questions like: how to, having the competition and consumers protection at heart, classify the exploitation of informational advantage which is gained by a company thanks to advanced communication services and data analysis provided by ourselves (most probably for a completely different purpose than they will be used and not necessarily consciously but still – we entrusted the information). Looking for vacation from thinking we give up the tools enabling extremely advanced, contextual analysis of our needs to the business giants, whose research potential in this filed progresses much faster than our awareness. Do we really prefer yoghurts and coffee machines to think for us? Do we really want our browser to know better than us the answers to questions what we should eat, how to jog, in what to invest? Soon it may turn out that we will ask Google how to shape our own career. Convenient and efficient? Maybe. But what is the guarantee that this monstrous intelligence will not turn against us? After all, the ratio of functioning of the Internet corporations, like any company, is the income of the shareholders, not the individual happiness of even the most loyal client.

Who will protect us from irrevocable loss of liberty?

Not determining how much the process of escape or resignation from individual liberty in a informational society is conscious and if it is a genuine problem, we are left with a question: what is next? Even if we are ready to sell the liberty of choice of certain services or the informational autonomy for a better mood, is not it worth taking care of some minimal precaution of fundamental rights in the digital world? If we lose a ground once, it will be very hard to regain it. If we agree without protest on filtering the Internet, blanket data retention or unrestricted possibilities of using our private information by “trusted” providers of services such as Google and Facebook, we may wake up in a completely different world, the world in which next game rules will be lied down totally without our control.

We have lost our innocence, but we still have at our command certain tools to protect the minimum of our rights. The discourse of human and civil rights has not been fully deprived of significance. In recent debates on abuses perpetrated on their own users by the Internet giants a right to privacy has turned up. The German constitutional tribunal has questioned the implementation of the EU directive of the data retention on account of secrecy of correspondence and unbalanced limitation of civil liberties. We are in the political time when we still can fight for the principal rights in the digital world, for efficient protection of constitutional values in the social life regardless of the form and space in which it is implemented.

The first step is to consolidate the opinion that the Internet is not “a permanent state of emergency” for which new basic and procedural rights and guarantees should be devised, but an ordinary reality in which the standards of democratic law state should apply. These rules are well-known and even written – in our constitution or in international documents like the APC Internet Rights Charter. The greatest practical problem is to find the political allies and efficient tools so that the ‘not so bad’ rules could be virtually introduced. The problem is complex, because it is not “only” about the regulation balance of the economic and informational predominance of international corporations, which in the realm of the Internet gain an additional ally for eluding tougher regulators. We need protection from the short-sighted impulses of some governments as well as from the European Union to tighten the regulative screw. Repeatedly, the ideas are coming back for the fight with paedophilia by disabling the suspicious pages on the Internet or for the fight with terrorism by means of an expensive tool, as the blanket data retention seems to be.

What can we do to more often witness some sensible regulative initiatives in defence of principal rights? It seems to me that only determined, aware of their rights and well-organised citizens, who share their knowledge and communicate on completely different rules (not even mentioning the pace of it) than politicians and officials, can extort such a regulation turn. Having in mind the recent issue in Germany, a strong civil movement against blanket data retention supported by the bold statement of constitutional tribunal or the rising objection of the European Parliament to the clandestine negotiations of the ACTA treaty and the propositions of cutting users off the net, we can hope that this method will work in a long run. But there will not be any transition if we as a society escape from the responsibility for our common and principal issues and we cease to fight for them. Then, with all certainty, the regulation policy will reflect the same logic: minimum of long-term reflexion, maximum of immediate benefits.

Translated by A. Kumycz

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About Katarzyna Szymielewicz

Lawyer and activist. Graduate of the Warsaw University and School of Oriental and African Studies. Leader of the Panoptykon Foundation, dealing with the human rights protection; activtis of the coalition of Social Watch.

Fredrich Naumann Foundation For The Freedom
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