Does the Internet Enable Freedom, 6/15/19
In 2019, have we passed peak technology freedom enablement?
The internet is associated with freedom, particularly, until recently as the ethos of Silicon Valley, rooted in its hippie/libertarian roots in the 1970s. It has been treated as a virtual law of nature that the internet is inherently a source of freedom of expression. But it’s hard to imagine a Google formed today proclaiming “do no evil.”
There is a strong case to consider that information technology does not inherently promote freedom, and that peak communications freedom was 25 years ago, when the internet was in its early fragmented days.
The ability to communicate globally with anyone, or everyone in the case of Twitter and YouTube, is transforming societies in ways we still don’t understand.
And while IT also has played a major role in destabilizing totalitarian societies, but it was simpler technologies like copiers and fax machines that arguably had the biggest impact. Copying and fax machines were under lock in Soviet Union, out of the government’s fear of individuals distributing unapproved books and ideas. This led to a complete inability to compete in a global knowledge-based economy, and was a contributing factor to the fall of the Soviet Union. The fax machine allowed Chinese dissidents to communicate locally and globally with supporters during the Tiananmen Square protests.
But historically, as information technologies mature, they lend themselves to the potential of being used to control societies. Websites and blogs propagated a loosely connected, difficult to censor web; consolidated platforms like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter potentially enable censorship and top down control.
The addition of artificial intelligence may lower the ability of networks to enable freedom. China’s “social credit system” aggregates your ideological, financial and legal tracks in society and then uses the score to limit an individual’s travel options and other decisions.
There are three levels of concern in the potential of the internet to mute freedom:
• Policing social networks as public forums — The concern over “false news” on Facebook and YouTube creates a conflict over classic freedom of speech, an ideal from an era in which information traveled far more slowly, putting the major platforms in the de facto role of publishers who must subjectively censor offensive content.
• Eroding privacy as a business model — For Google, Facebook and Amazon, driving the loss of individual privacy in free societies for commercial gain is “a feature, not a bug”.
• Enabling dictatorships — The systems enabling the social credit system in China are gaining traction, using big data and artificial intelligence for controlling individual behavior.
In the decades to come, IT will likely lose the idealistic luster of the past 50 years, the first 20 in academia and the past 30 in society at large. As human interactions continue to migrate to the internet, the internet will encompass all the contradictions and limitations of humanity, as well as its glories.