How the Internet Is Transforming from a Tool of Liberation to One of Oppression

06/05/2014 01:42 pm ET | Updated Aug 04, 2014
Martin Krolikowski/500px

Remember when the Internet was going to fix the world? According to leading technology pundits, traditional dinosaurs were going to be "disintermediated" and "disrupted," freeing us all from meddling middlemen and allowing competition to flourish. We wouldn't need corrupt professional media makers anymore because we would all blog and tweet. Social networking would empower protesters and enhance democracy the world over.

Today coincides with a national day of action called "Reset the Net," marking the one-year anniversary of Edward Snowden's National Security Administration revelations. And as this video to promote the protest shows, the mood has darkened considerably. Thanks to Snowden, we now know the Internet has become a giant government spying apparatus dependent on the complicity of companies we use everyday. The pendulum of public perception is swinging -- the Internet transforming from a tool of liberation and expression to one of oppression and control.

A Reuters poll from April showed that a majority of Americans believe that technology companies including Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Amazon are "encroaching too much upon their lives." It's a rather remarkable statistic given these companies were universally loved not that long ago, widely imagined to be allies of the people against the old oligarchs.

There are various reasons pessimism is on the rise besides surveillance, though that's a big one. Google has been investigated by government officials for promoting its own products in search results above competitors' and has been revealed as one of Washington's biggest lobbyists. Subpar labor conditions and worker suicides at Apple's factories have made headlines. Amazon has been getting bad press lately for the abominable conditions in its warehouses and for bullying publishers to get more favorable terms, making it impossible or difficult for customers to purchase certain titles. The list goes on. Meanwhile, these companies keep expanding, buying up competition and staking their claim on new technological frontiers, from mobile messaging and virtual reality to home appliances and transportation.

As an independent documentary filmmaker and activist, I'm dependent on new technologies and aware of their potential; in many ways, I'm a prime candidate for championing the digital revolution. But like a growing number of my fellow citizens, I'm worried that we've taking the wrong turn on the road to the future, which is why I wrote my book The People's Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age. Look around and it's clear that we are not seeing a revolution but a rearrangement, with architectural, economic, and social hierarchies warping the web and many of the problems of the old model--centralization, consolidation, and commercialization--perpetuated and even intensified online.

It turns out the old dinosaurs are adapting to digital life just fine. Legacy media companies like Disney, Time Warner, and CBS are doing great; their share prices rising. At the same time, a new crop of behemoths has emerged: Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Google are now some of the biggest companies on earth. Google, Facebook, and many other major social platforms, are just as dependent on the advertising dollar as their network television and newspaper predecessors.

Only they are far more ubiquitous and invasive. They monitor our private thoughts and track our every move, sucking up our personal data in order to better serve marketers, who are the real paying customers. "Surveillance is the business model of the Internet," as technologist Bruce Schneier has said, and the NSA and other state agencies piggyback on these private sector practices. To put things in perspective, Disney didn't read your diary and your mail or follow you around the mall.

For too long we've been talking about what the Internet might hypothetically do. But the fact is that technologies do not emerge in a vacuum; economic forces in particular shape the evolution of our tools. Net neutrality is a prime example. The reason that cable companies want to offer two-tiered Internet service (a fast lane for those who can afford to pay and a slow lane for those who can't) is because they could make gobs of money by charging for preferential treatment. Though they already reap astounding profit margins on broadband, they are willing to dramatically transform the Internet and harm democracy (by privileging the communications of those with deep pockets) to generate more revenue.

Unfortunately, too much tech commentary shies away from this topic, focusing on individual use patterns instead of structural conditions. Consider the conversation about whether mobile gadgets and social media are addictive and make us distracted. If these goods and services are addicting and distracting, it is not some inherent aspect of smartphones or online socializing or a sign of our personal failings and inability to exercise restraint.

Rather, they are addictive by design, with even seemingly trivial details like color schemes underpinned by psychological research. The market encourages certain user behavior because data collection and marketing is the dominant business model. Countless skilled programmers, whose talents could serve far more productive aims, are employed to figure out how to get us to spend maximum time on websites, reveal as much personal information as possible, and look at ads. Progressive media critics used to talk about the media "manufacturing consent;" now it's about manufacturing compulsion. More clicks equal more money.

Once we understand this, we don't have to swing from techno-utopianism to its dystopian opposite. We can recognize that the optimistic predictions about the Internet were naïve, but that doesn't make us techno-pessimists. The problem isn't "technology" or "the Internet" per se -- it's the underlying financial logic driving things. That's what needs to be disrupted, to use Silicon Valley parlance.

While we have heard a lot over the years about how the Internet can overthrow dictators in authoritarian countries (and, post-Snowden, quite a bit about how governments can harness technologies to serve their own ends), less has been said about how networked technologies shore up the wealth and power of the corporate elite who own the platforms we all depend on. In an age of increasing inequality and diminishing democracy, this is a major cause for concern.

Our communications system is at a crossroads -- one path leading to an increasingly corporatized and commercialized world where we are treated as targeted consumers, the other to a true cultural commons where we are nurtured as citizens and creators. A more open and egalitarian media system is possible, but technology alone will not bring it about.

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