Will Democracy Survive the Next Internet?

On October 12, as part of the 2017-2018 Truth and Democracy: Journalism, Politics, and Social Science conference series, Vincent Mosco (Ph.D, Harvard), Professor Emeritus at Queen’s University and Distinguished Professor of Communication, New Media Centre, Fudan University (Shanghai) presented his upcoming book Becoming digital: Toward a Post-Internet Society (Emerald, November 2017). Organized at the Concordia Centre for Broadcasting and Journalism Studies (CCBJS) in partnership with Le Centre de recherche interdisciplinaire sur la diversité et la démocratie (CRIDAQ), the talk addressed the transition from today’s internet to the internet of tomorrow, characterized by Cloud Computing, Big Data Analytics and the Internet of Things. Taken together, these technological advances whose functioning seems somewhat opaque to most of us nevertheless pose clear, concrete and fast-growing threats to democracy as we know it. In a world where great powers —most of which are democracies—, wager on neoliberalism, the controversial daughter of capitalism, isn’t it time to discuss the importance of regulation, privacy and market concurrence for future generations? If this debate does not take place on a global scale, will democracy survive the next internet?

“The Frankenstein defense” or the hypocritical denial: the growing gap between democracy and capitalism

Setting the scene by recounting a November 2016 meeting between then president Barack Obama and Facebook founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg in a Peru hotel room, meeting during which the president warned the businessman of the threat posed by the circulation of fake news and political disinformation on social media platforms, Professor Mosco brings to the forefront the issue of how corporate and political power meet in an unregulated environment such as the communication industry of today.

In light of reports of Russian interference in the US elections, not only through illegal means such as hacking, but also through the legal use of digital tools such as bought advertisement on social media platforms during the 2016 electoral year, Mosco criticized the current political complacency towards the communication industry as well as the hypocrisy of the corporate world. If social media are increasingly perceived as a threat to democracy, governments are giving them incredible force by refusing to regulate the way the data they collect is being used. By their reluctance to prevent yet predictable undesirable outcomes, neoliberal governments and particularly the United States, allow corporations which subscribe to the “Frankenstein defense” or the “we did not know that what we created will turn into a monster” argument to dodge responsibility. In fact, behind the technological monster hides another one: capitalism. Asking if democracy will survive the next internet actually comes down to ask if democracy will survive capitalism.

But what exactly makes the next Internet so different from the current Internet? According to Mosco, the Internet we have relied on for thirty years was designed to be a decentralized system ontologically democratic both in its design and accessibility. Big players such as the New York Times or Xerox tended to stand back as new technologies are often perceived as disturbing when not frightening. On the contrary, the next generation of Internet resembles a three-headed hydra: Cloud Computing, Big Data Analytics and the Internet of Things. The Cloud computing system begins the centralization process by storing and processing large amounts of data. It is the principal form of outsourcing in the world, which made Amazon the highly profitable company it is today. Big Data Analytics “either makes the data more profitable or weaponize it”. By looking for constituency in the data through algorithms, it excludes long-lasting methodologies based on subjectivity and historical understanding. As for the Internet of Things, which includes autonomous vehicles, it extends Internet to objects, places and even people by building a globally connected network based on the collection and exchange of data. Construed as massive digital advances, these three converging technologies, however promising they can be, need to be regulated for the sake of privacy and a world where capitalism does not dangerously reign.

The danger of an unregulated communication world: BIG DATA IS WATCHING YOU

In a world where large data firms are profit-oriented, several threats to democracy have arisen. Historically, either national ownership or state regulations were used to control the negative economic and social effects of concentration for democracy. Yet, a massive concentration of power is taking place with five American companies that have more power and make more profit than any other companies in the world. In decreasing order: Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook. The industry is now concentrated in the hand of one country, the United States, whereas European telecommunications used to be very important in the same market. Their major challenge comes from China, which started to fight American concentration by creating its own versions of the above-mentioned companies (Alibaba for Amazon, Baidu for Google, Ren.Ren.com for Facebook, etc.)

But what exactly are the dangers of concentrated corporate data for democracy? According to Mosco, the dangers are multiple. First and foremost, the massive commercialization of users, sold as commodities to advertisers without giving users the right to preserve their privacy. It is important to note that big companies such as Facebook do not actually produce anything but make enormous profits thanks to advertisement. Criticizing the common approach that mistakes privacy for the mere absence of intrusion in our daily life, Mosco insisted that privacy is the essential space needed to develop our personality, our character and our human integrity. The actual threat for our privacy is not so much hackers, but surveillance capitalism that has our data sold to advertisers and national agencies. This unveils the relations between the industry and the military. Indeed, another issue linked to privacy is the development of the cyber-military, which highly relies on the next Internet. Some American companies benefit from close ties with the US military. For instance, Amazon signed a 600 million $ contract with the CIA to store and process data in large data centers situated in the U.S. Linked to the National Security Agency (NSA), the largest American companies helped it build the largest data center in the world (located in Utah). As such, the lack of regulation also concerns the problem of E-Waste, for which the only solutions found so far are to delocalize it in third-world countries.

In terms of cyber-military, weaponized drones have already been used to kill middle-eastern civilians suspected of terrorism while there is a growing concern of the militarization of information. With the Internet of Things, not only privacy is threatened but also the very existence of blue-collar jobs, endangered by automation. All these technologies are supported by myths that help us to cope with the acceleration of social change. Old myths focused on the end of history, politics and geography, while new ones threaten the very definition of human beings. Among them, the myth on singularity, which holds that the merging of people and machines will represent a new evolutionary step where part-human and part-technology beings will achieve greatest things. Another myth, the myth of coming alive, deep-rooted in popular culture, further endangers the essence of humanity by projecting a future of live devices.

However worrying the situation might appear, Vincent Mosco concluded his talk on an optimistic, hopeful note. An alternative exists, but it will need massive social movements and a faith in history. Looking back, Mosco reminds us than in 1996, Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act that stipulated that “the word “marriage” means only a legal union between one man and one woman”. Massive social movements changed minds and ultimately laws on the definition of marriage, enabling same-sex marriage become legal nationwide in the U.S in 2015. Regarding the threats that the next Internet poses to democracy, one thing remains certain: information should be regulated and considered a public utility. Whether social, political, cultural or economic, change requires both structural movements and transactional movements, from massive social movements to citizen actions in townhalls. If our eighteen-century ancestors could understand that information was too valuable to concentrate in the hands of companies, how can we not see it today? The debate is now open…

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