The Internet Is Not Going Completely to Plan

The Internet Is Not Going Completely to Plan
AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein
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Originally envisioned as a democratic tool to connect the world, the internet is not going completely to plan. The last year alone provides data points aplenty. Surveillance software sold to the Mexican government was used to spy on anti-corruption activists; a Rohingya group was banned from a social media platform amid ethnic cleansing; and Russian trolls and bots continue to tear at the United States’ democratic fabric. With global freedom in decline, most significantly freedom of expression, the internet has not necessarily made us better informed, nor has it left us able to better express ourselves. 

One of the internet’s most valued attributes, its lack of regulations, is also used to exploit the increased connectivity it fosters. As techno-sociologist Zeynep Tufekci notes, new censorship practices focus on the “denial of attention, focus, and credibility,” rather than the denial of information. Implementing these practicies, governments can use social media platforms as populist pulpits. They can also use the platforms for targeted information campaigns. Russia is not alone; 30 countries are known to implement government-sponsored campaigns that involve manipulating information on social media. Some campaigns support authoritarian governments, and some are used by democracies. Some relate to elections, while others seek to limit protests and activism. Some spread falsehoods, while other campaigns aim simply to distract social media users. Some rely on human capital, and some rely on automation, using bots. There are campaigns that use a mixture of both. 

As we learned from recent congressional hearings, technology firms’ lack of oversight enables government repression as well. Some firms’ hate-speech rules, in some instances, protect those in power, such as political elites and governments, rather than minorities. This often creates situations where individuals who lose the ability to use such platforms are restricted from using their only outlet for expression. 

However, a lack of oversight is not always to blame. Insatiable quests for expanding markets can lead firms to adjust their policies and ideals to appease governments to ensure their market presence. For example, media reports indicated a social media firm developed software to suppress posts in certain geographic areas, likely in hopes of entering the Chinese market. When recently asked about these reports under oath, a representative of the firm did not denounce or disprove it. 

Social media firms are not the only problematic actor in the private sector: The commercial surveillance trade has allowed governments with poor human rights records to purchase sophisticated tools to stifle political threats. Spyware, one example of such software, can provide remote access to a target’s cell phone, including its camera, contacts, microphone, and text messages. A prime example of a lack of regulation involves the targeting of the son of a world-renowned journalist who was investigating a corruption scandal involving the president of Mexico. The journalist’s son, who at the time was a minor residing the United States, was sent “crude sexual taunts” and messages impersonating the U.S. government in hopes of obtaining information about his mother, or access to her information. More than 20 countries, including the United States, have purchased similar technologies.

The use of intrusive and clandestine tools is problematic, but what may be more concerning is the development of broader surveillance systems. In concert with U.S. President Donald Trump’s January 2017 Executive Order, the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement proposed an Extreme Vetting Initiative which intends to use automation and data mining to evaluate whether an individual migrating to the United States will be a “positively contributing member of society” and “contribute to national interests.” Machine learning experts have widely condemned the use of algorithms to determine such qualities. The experts posit such practices will “arbitrarily flag groups of immigrants under a veneer of objectivity.” The Extreme Vetting Initiative is deeply troubling not just as a setback to America’s civil liberties, but also because it lends credibility to other nations who are using the internet to control and manipulate their populations. 

Saudi Arabia is currently constructing a surveillance apparatus that takes into account its planned shift in revenue related to religious tourism, as well as addressing other security-related issues. The apparatus, which is a part of a $50 billion infrastructure plan, will utilize surveillance cameras and so-called smart applications, with future plans to implement facial recognition software alongside a database of citizens, residents, and visitors. Also, China is beginning to use a system that cross-references social media and online activity, financial information, geolocation tracking, facial recognition software, and surveillance cameras to tackle a variety of national issues including street crime, corporate corruption, and the movement of Chinese migrant populations. Chinese authorities are planning to increase the system’s scope by 2020. Beijing wants roughly one surveillance camera for every three Chinese citizens.

As the cyber domain becomes less exceptional and more intertwined with the workings of the world, the role of the internet and the use of citizens’ data need serious re-evaluation. Access to data will be vital as machine learning and artificial intelligence loom. A lack of protections for consumers and citizens will have grave implications.

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