Wednesday, October 02, 2013

The internet is not a magical democracy machine

Despite what the current crop of Silicon Valley technopreneur TED heads like to tell you, the internet doesn't just automatically make everything free and open on its own.  It's just as likely to be used to utterly shut down free speech and dissent as it becomes easier and easier to monitor and regulate even the most casual communication.

This is an Atlantic article about two recent studies of China's surveillance infrastructure. The authors emphasize the subtlety.. if you can call it that.. of the censorship policy.

Chinese people can still be punished for publishing dissent, especially if it gains traction: For example, a man in Shaanxi Province was recently detained for being retweeted 500 times on Sina Weibo. But to the extent that criticism is expressed in small ways, it is secondary to writing that might incite collective action.

King suggests at least two reasons for this. First, allowing some criticism might mollify citizens who want to blow off some steam, thereby keeping them from expressing these feelings more violently. Second, this relative leniency is a useful way for the central government to learn about problems that require attention. King cites the political scientist Martin Dimitrov, who argues that “regimes collapse when its people stop bringing grievances to the state”—because they no longer see the state as legitimate.  Calls to collective action, however, are regarded as dangerous and are not tolerated at all—even when they have little to do with politics.

In all, these studies provide further evidence of technology’s basic amorality: Rather than being a net positive or negative, it merely amplifies underlying human forces. Says King, “Political actors in any country use whatever means of communication they have to advance their goals. If technology allows them to do it faster, they’ll use technology.”

“In some ways, it’s the same in America,” he continues. Large technology companies in the United States are required by law to monitor and censor illegal content such as child pornography, and, as recent revelations about NSA spying reveal, Washington has the ability to pressure businesses to get information it wants.

But the nature of government control of the Internet between the two countries is still different. King gave a recent example: A few days ago, the singer/actor Justin Timberlake tweeted that the first 150 people to join him at a nightclub would get in free. Hundreds of people lined up within minutes. King says, “That could never happen in China.”
The Chinese are interested in allowing people to vent... a little. As long as they do so in a benign, isolated kind of way.  Basically, it's okay to shout into the darkness alone as much as you want.  It's when people feel free to talk to each other that the trouble begins.

In the US, this norm is enforced in an even more subtle way.  The nature of our "social networks" have changed significantly in recent years.  Americans don't use one "internet" to communicate anymore.  Instead they use several parallel internet stovepipes which tend to remain closed to anyone but their current social peers.  This is a significant change.  It's a retreat from the idea of a true information commons.  We're basically participating in the construction of a bigger, better filter bubble.

And this is a normative change as much as it is structural.  We cheer whenever an online news service closes its comments section. We block users we disagree with on Twitter and Facebook.  In any number of subtle ways we've begun to accept the idea of the internet as more a tool for professional advertisers and entertainers than a conduit for citizen feedback.  It's interesting that the researchers distinguish American internet activism from the Chinese by citing a celebrity PR stunt as the example of our greater freedom.  Kind of highlights the degree to which our illusion is similar to theirs.

Update: Here's a Mother Jones article about "oversharing" that begins with this quote from Google CEO Eric Schmidt. Think for a minute just how insidious this is.
If you have something you don't want anyone to know about, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place. —Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt
In other words, every second of your life is a potentially incriminating moment.  Better not take any risks. Better not challenge any authority. Better keep those original thoughts to yourself.  Is this really what we want? 

In 2011 the American Library Association held its annual conference in New Orleans.  The keynote speaker was writer and social commentator Dan Savage.  One of the things he talked about was the importance, for him as a young man coming to terms with his sexuality, of having had the opportunity to "read surreptitiously."
Savage playfully pandered, saying, “I’m a print guy, and I think books are magic.” But he added a very real and sobering message: not all kids can risk getting caught with an incriminating browser history, nor do many kids have access to YouTube at school.

The book is for them, Savage said, and challenged school librarians to put it on the shelves where kids in need might find it and “read it surreptitiously, if that’s what they need to do at that point in their lives.”

Here again, Savage linked the subversive quality of his YouTube and book project to the knowledge dissemination mission of libraries. It puts LGBT adults in touch-if indirectly-with the LGBT youth who need to hear their messages.
If we follow Schmidt's proscription we basically shut off our capacity for intellectual curiosity. We train ourselves not to question. We stunt our ability to grow, learn, and to arm ourselves against all manner of official bullshit. And then, as Savage's career exemplifies, help others by sharing what we've learned without fear of retribution.

The internet can be a wonderfully subversive tool provided its users are allowed to share and discuss freely.  But if we allow it to become an ever-present monitor of  heretofore "surreptitious" activity it can also be crushingly oppressive.  The Chinese have already demonstrated how this works.  In our own way, we're quickly catching up to them.

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