How come Facebook is free of charge yet Mark Zuckerberg is a billionaire? Google is also free of charge, yet its 2013 revenue was put at over $59bn. Do users know how those appealing, free services have become top ten global multinationals, and how do we finally pay for our consumption?
Most Internet users know that these companies are selling advertisements, and that is how they make their money. And since their services are free of charge, people leave it at that and don’t ask questions. The debate on privacy in the digital age never really happened.
We also know that governments were using the new possibilities offered by digital technologies to spy on their citizens. Although there was large opposition in the United States and Europe to government attempts to tap our digital footprints, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 in 2001 had disinclined the public to pay attention. On 26 October 2001, weeks after the attacks, the US Congress passed the notorious Patriot Act, which largely gave the American government carte blanche/free hands to spy on the entire Internet — that is spy on US citizens, and the rest of the world — under the pretext of searching for terrorism. And so the terrorism scare was used to kill privacy laws that were being debated before 9/11.
Here too, people were ready to give up some of their privacy in return for the promised security. “I have nothing to hide from the government,” many shrugged when they were asked about losing their privacy. A two-day conference organised at Webster University, in Geneva, was an opportunity to reflect on those revelations. When we put the pieces together, the emerging picture is scary.
In the pre-digital age governments did not have the right to tap into your (fixed) telephone line, or search your mail, unless they had a valid warrant, authorised by a judge. In our times, such formalities are not needed. Our entire communication is watched, recorded and stored both by government agencies and private companies. Apple, Twitter or Amazon store not only our information, but also the patterns we create on the Internet by our nomadic movements. They do it officially to upgrade their services: unofficially they are using the information we generate online to sell it to third parties. And when various databases are crossed together — say with our credit card information or GPS records, then the “mata data” or the “data about data” generated is enormous: those companies know more about your friends or family members, sometimes they know more about you than you do yourself. “The merchandise of the information economy is not information; it is attention,” writes James Gleick. “These commodities have an inverse relationship. When information is cheap, attention becomes expensive. Attention is what we, the users, give to Google, and our attention is what Google sells — concentrated, focused, and crystallised.”
The series of revelations since June 2013 by Edward Snowden shed a new light at the magnitude of surveillance that both government agencies and the multinationals had been carrying out. Snowden, a former employee of the CIA and more recently a consultant for the NSA as computer analyst, turned into a whistleblower when he abandoned his well-paid job and comfortable life in Hawaii to reveal the scale of the US government surveillance programme. He escaped first to Hong Kong, with an estimated 1.7m files. The US has qualified him a “traitor” and cynically charged him with “espionage”. Since, he received “temporary refuge” in Russia.
Although digital multinationals preach “openness”, “transparency” and “connectivity”, they themselves hide behind a thick shroud. The fact that the NSA was spying on both American and foreign citizens, including private conversations of heads of states allied to the US, have already made the headlines. But that is only the tip of the iceberg. Snowden has revealed how the various multinationals, including Google, Apple, Skype, and the like have easily collaborated with the US government — and they do the same elsewhere with other governments — to pass our private communications and data. We also learn how the NSA put pressure on all of those companies to compromise their security and protection, to make accessing data easier.
The Internet was supposed to be free, to facilitate exchange of information and ideas. It was supposed to be a force of liberation. It did achieve miracles. But it also facilitated surveillance to unprecedented levels. Both government agencies such as the NSA — as well as multinationals providing search engines, social networks, Internet browsers, even video games — are spying on us. Not only are they registering/recording] basic data on us (age, electronic addresses, passwords, etc), but also our habits when we go online: our entire digital footprint.
Imagine a world without privacy: how can you have investigative journalism when you cannot hide your sources from government agencies or search engines? How will the professions of doctors and lawyers change when their communications with their patients and clients are no longer private?
The fact that digital companies are supplying government agencies with our private information is evident. In Culleb Hoback’s documentary Terms and Regulations Might Apply, one sees how a Facebook posting of a tweet by a young, Irishman to his friend before departing to LA — saying “free this week for a quick gossip/prep before I go and destroy America? x” — led him to prison directly he disembarked, then expulsion. In Britain, immediately before the royal marriage between Prince William and Catherine Middleton, some 50 people were arrested because the police suspected they could have constituted a threat. We are already in the age of Orwell’s “thought crimes.” But the worst episode was when the FBI was spying on the private emails of the CIA director, 4-star general David Petraeus, and discovered an extramarital affair with his biographer Paul Broadwell. The FBI leaked the information creating a scandal that forced Petraeus to resign.
The Snowden revelations, as well as the WikiLeaks scandal in which US army intelligence analyst Bradley (later Chelsea) Manning could download thousands of documents containing US diplomatic correspondence, reveal another truth: the accumulated data behind the NSA walls are not safe at all — a mid-level official can walk away with even their top-secret data. What happens if such data eventually falls into the “wrong hands”?
As if hi-tech spying was not enough, a US court has ruled that it is legal for US border guards to ask travellers to open their computers and search data inside. This search method is already in use in Syria where at military checkpoints people can be forced to open laptops or smartphones, and show telephone numbers of Facebook accounts (and if the comments are not to the taste of the whichever side is carrying out the inspection, execution may follow).
Referring to Internet-based platforms, Professor Rebekah Jorgenson says: “The public treats them as if they are public forums when in fact they are profit-making businesses.” In the past, when companies had too much power and became monopolistic, anti-trust laws cut down Standard Oil or AT&T into smaller, less dangerous pieces. That model could be one solution. The other could be to create conditions where users themselves regulate platforms performing social functions — like search-engines, browsers or social media — on the model of Wikipedia, or Wikileaks. But before all that, there needs to be a public debate through which ordinary people finally take responsibility, and decide not to be swindled by “free” offers. It is high time users reclaim the Internet.