The Snowden debate - is the web a weapon of oppression or marketing salvation?
I must confess, lately when I’m on the net these days I feel more and more like I’m in some weird Muse musical conspiracy...like the powers that be are stealthily grabbing more and more control from us.
Now, before you shout lovely things like ‘paranoid android’, can you recall back when Facebook first graced our lives and was such a neat place to keep in touch with long-lost friends?
And yet now it seems to have morphed into some kind of bizarre marketplace, twisting all your likes and interests into a feverish pitch-fest for your money. Every fifth post promising if you just click on the link you’ll get the ‘3 Crucial And Secret Steps To Explode Your Lifestyle/Business/Fitness!’.
Then there’s that almost creepy way products you were searching on Google for a minute ago, now just pop up conveniently on your newsfeed- as if they’re reading your mind..
Inside your head
Well, due to advanced algorithms that match your interests with relevant ads, the powers that be on the internet actually ARE essentially inside your head.
Personal data you share in order to gain access to Facebook and Google, helps zero in on what interests you have, your age demographic, and even your income. And they happily use this to target their marketing efforts on you.
Take also Apple’s closed-loop Ipod system- anything outside of it has no hope of finding its way into your music player. However if you still like U2, well you lucked out- without warning, you got their last new album thrust into your player, whether you liked it or not (if you care, didn’t mind their old stuff, new tunes.. hmm, not so much).
And iPhone users are forced to go through Apple’s App Store to add almost anything to their devices.
Facebook says jump
This control goes deeper.
When an 18-year-old black resident of Ferguson was shot and killed by a white police officer in August 2014, it blew up on Twitter.
That day millions of tweets were sent, discussing this apparent case of police brutality. But when Zeynep Tufekci, a professor who studies the social impact of technology, tried to see what people on Facebook were saying, she found..nothing.
She soon realised that Facebook’s algorithm was actually slanted towards the Ice Bucket Challenge, which was trending at the time. Essentially, Facebook was dictating what people were seeing in their feeds.
Meanwhile this incident that later spawned a movement questioning the role of U.S. policing and race relations, could only exist on Twitter’s algorithm-free platform, where people’s interest drove the conversation.
Children of the revolution
So has the great promise of the internet to provide us a new era of openness and independence been corrupted? Is it really the great equalizer anymore, or just a means to transfer power, information, and control to powerful institutions with their own agendas?
Certainly when the internet exploded back in the 90s, there was a real sense of discovery for everyone. It was even a liberation - people were creating their own websites and online communities, which began pushing back against the monopoly held by longstanding media and commerce institutions.
As Yochai Benkler, a Harvard Law School professor and director at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society puts it:
“There were well-defined control points or tollbooths that someone could sit at and decide: You get to innovate, you don’t get to innovate. You get to communicate with people you want to communicate, you don’t get to communicate. That changed dramatically with the Internet, and you saw a radical decentralization of the ability to speak and innovate and communicate without permission. Power was decentralized.”
However, as the internet has since grown to a global usage of 3.2 bilion people, a handful of companies – Facebook, Google, Apple - have now emerged with an influence on how we all use it.
It’s bittersweet, as these companies admittedly have greatly enriched many people’s lives via communication and information access. However they’re also now morphing into a new colossal power that has the potential to influence our thinking to their demands - such as emphasising an Ice Bucket Challenge over police protests and important race relation issues.
Sun still shining on internet giants
This leads into another concern - perhaps these companies harbour a possible agenda to dumb us down.
Ultimately for them, the longer we stay on their platforms, the more likely we are to purchase from their advertisers - in order to make us stay, they entice us with shiny objects like click-bait gossip columns, as opposed to real issues of the day.
With their new power and influence they convince us that Kim Kardashian’s new selfie shot is more important than say, fragile race relations.
Tufekci, in the Freakonomics interview adds:
“There’s all these really smart engineers. They’re the brightest computer scientists, and all they’re thinking about is: how do I keep someone on Facebook for 10 more minutes? What’s the exact combination of things that will keep them staying on the site for as long as possible so we can show them as much advertisement as possible? And given the amazing, revolutionary, fascinating disruptive potential of the Internet, it really feels like a waste to have this much intelligence and smarts being used to figure out how to keep you clicking on ten more animal videos.”
And while it’s true Facebook has to make money like any other company, they aren’t just selling us products; they’re actually shaping our new 21st-century public consciousness. So here’s hoping at some stage we can rise above those darned cute cat videos.
Snowden blows the whistle
One person who probably isn’t thinking about cat videos these days is Edward Snowden. Ever since he blew the whistle on the U.S. government’s wholesale spying on its own citizens via the internet, he’s been trying to stay out of their clutches.
A former government surveillance employee, Snowden became disillusioned when he saw the extent of the snooping going on. He revealed that millions of people, without realising, have their internet activity tracked - online purchases, searches, and email messages. All so the government can monitor their movements under the motto of national security.
It seems George Orwell was onto something in his novel ‘1984’, when he depicted the possible dangers of a Big Brother society.
Snowden doesn’t mince his words when he refers to the power of the web to control:
His leaks of the government’s capabilities to snoop on citizens hit like a bombshell - they have free reign to track everyone.
For example, using just your mobile phone web connection, they know exactly where you go on any given day. And any gaps they can fill in, through purchases you make on your bank card, or where you might travel on a public transport card.
The government, up to the point of Snowden’s leak, maintained that its’ citizens had freedom of speech. But in light of this leak, how can you possibly speak freely under fear that you are being spied upon, and the fear that invasion of privacy brings?
The powers that be have changed their tune since. They tell us that sometimes your privacy needs to be compromised so that you may be protected from modern evils, such as identity theft and terrorism.
But there’s always that lingering feeling of if they’re doing it for such a noble cause, why weren’t they transparent about it all along? Unless they’re hiding something of course..
Ultimately, this case further highlights the extent of power that the net’s giants have over us.
Whether it’s algorithm manipulations to influence what we discuss on Facebook, closed loop systems to increase Apple’s profits over their competitors, or perhaps the ultimate violations to our privacy- hidden government surveillance.
It seems they can sway this control anyway they like in order to maximise their profits, regardless of the freedoms we may lose in the process.
Of course, business has to make a buck, but at what cost? The freedom and liberty the internet once promised us was like a new day rising, but it seems we now live in darkening times.
And it is so much harder to see in the dark.