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Protecting Internet Democracy

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I remember clearly the first time I overheard someone say the word "e-mail" in a restaurant. I jumped up from my chair, and strode over to the table where the 30-something man was sitting, and said, "Hi, I'm bfox. We've met before, right?" At that time (1981), there were only about 500 e-mail servers on the ARPANet, and the odds were extremely high that one user of the network would have exchanged information with another.

Times have changed, and I'm fully aware that I don't know everyone who uses e-mail. But I do know that I can communicate, collaborate, and exchange ideas with large numbers of people that I've never met physically. For me, it is the natural way that the world should be for us humans -- using technology to bring us closer together.

In many ways, the Internet has finally evolved to a place where it is having just the type of transformational affect that we early e-mailers dreamed it might. The "Twitter Revolution" in Iran, the clean democratic elections in Egypt following their revolution that ousted Mubarak, the overthrow of Gaddafi in Libya, Occupy Wall Street, and even the 6 million people who took to the streets earlier this month in Syria -- all were aided by the technological advances that have decentralized the flow of information. Who would have dreamed a hashtag would transform journalism, empowering individuals to report the news in real time?

In Iran, officials spent as much time online shutting down portals as they did in the streets policing protesters. Libya was forced to turn off its Internet access in order to stem the flow of truth and ideas.

And now, just as the world is reshaping itself through the availability of information and flexible communication, there are direct attacks on the technology infrastructure that is shaking up political structures. The poorly named Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) has serious implications for the use of free speech on the Internet, and there has been a viral revolt against companies and interests that support it. GoDaddy.com got slapped hard with an overnight boycott of its web hosting services when it declared its support of the bill, and reacted by recanting its statement of support.

It is the under the radar attacks that have the potential to wreak the most havoc on the fulfillment of the real promise of our Internet. In my current work, my job is to protect the online privacy of consumers. Advertisers are working hard to develop intricate consumer profiles of every individual -- to know who you are, where you are and what you are browsing and buying. My job is to give us back the power to control our information -- its flow, who it is shared with, and whether it can be used to track you.

Proponents of free speech utilize our product "Cocoon" to access social media from behind restrictive firewalls, and let their voices be heard.

For decades I imagined that we would be using secure voting systems and implementing a true digital democracy, empowering individuals around the world to shape their own governments to best reflect their needs. We still aren't there yet. Instead, I am focused on protecting the privacy rights of those same individuals from Peeping Tom advertisers or government intrusion.

These same principles of tracking and consumer profiling are also having a limiting effect on what information is presented to us. In a recent TED speech, Eli Pariser received a standing ovation from the audience for his discussion about how hyper-personalization was directly shaping the information an individual received. Tracking is not limited to just advertisers. Sites such as Google and Facebook use it to modify and "personalize" the information you receive.

Pariser noted a mini experiment where he asked two friends to search the same word on Google from their respective computers. The information that was returned was relevant to the search term, but was vastly skewed in different directions. What came back could not have been more disparate. A couple of months ago, we had independently done a similar experiment with a handful of people around the country and were equally shocked by the results. Not only did different information come up based on geography, but the results were tailored to age, gender and even category (news, images, etc.).

Advertisers suggest they want to provide more "butlered" service, presenting you with products more suited to your tastes while Google wants to make it easier for you to find the services or information you are looking for.

It is this nexus of online tracking, behavioral profiling and hyper-personalization that truly threatens the future and possibility of the Internet. While it may be more convenient in some ways, the fact that our choices and information are being limited by algorithms and computer profiling means we are presented with fewer options. Pariser argues that hyper-personalization is limiting our viewpoint, our lens, to the world and that a marketplace of ideas and viewpoints is an essential component to democracy. If liberals are not exposed to conservative ideas and conservatives aren't exposed to liberal ideas, how will they ever find common ground? Just because I lean to the left politically hardly means that I don't want to hear conservative ideas or news stories.

As a citizen and as a programmer, the most frustrating thing to me is the fact that we don't even know the profiling is occurring or that our information is being reshaped based on some hidden algorithm. While our company provides a free plug-in (and soon an iOS app) to free people of online tracking, it would be just as simple for Google and Facebook to create a button that turns off the "personalization" algorithm.

The best way to protect and even promote democracy is to protect the freedom of the Internet. While SOPA has created quite a stir publicly, we must also be vigilant about even some of the "conveniences" we are presented with, lest we all break the law of unintended consequences.

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