“We see the Internet... as the vehicle for the greatest expansion of freedom in human history to date.” These are the words of internet pioneer John Perry Barlow, whose Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace claimed that the internet would free society from the tyranny of big business and the state.
If there was any doubt that this utopian vision had passed us by, this weeks revelation that Cambridge Analytica - the data analytics firm behind Donald Trump’s election campaign - had harvested millions of Facebook profiles to influence elections, leaves us in little doubt.
This is one of the clearest examples yet – alongside the Snowden revelations - of the gross perversion of Barlow’s vision. Every time we log onto Facebook, type something into Google, or buy something on Amazon, we voluntarily provide these organisations with incredibly valuable information about ourselves. These companies can use this data to understand who we are and what we are interested in.
To give you a sense of how powerful this information is, a recent study found that the things we like on Facebook can predict our gender, sexuality, religion, skin colour, relationship status and political preferences. This isn’t just a problem with Facebook: mobile phone providers can predict with near certainty where you will be in 24hrs time.
Most of the time, this knowledge is put to (reasonably) benign uses. It’s why the advertising we see on the internet reflects what we have been looking at hours earlier and it’s how Google Maps can find you the quickest route home, wherever you are in the world.
But, this is not always the case. In this latest data scandal, Facebook data was used to understand the issues people care about and how to use this to manipulate their voting behaviour. Another example: Twitter uses our data to filter what news appears on our timeline, re-enforcing rather than challenging our existing beliefs and opinions.
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The companies themselves will argue that this is all done within the law. In most cases this is almost certainly true. We sign away our right to privacy when we sign up to the terms of conditions of these organisations. But, given the stakes are so high, this seems like a technicality. When virtually no one can remember or understand the terms and conditions they signed up to when they joined Facebook or Twitter, we can hardly conclude that this consent was active.
Why should we care? Primarily, because these practises are increasingly a threat to democracy. This is ironic: technology has long been heralded as the great enabler of freedom and democratic renewal. Proponents argued that it would shine a light on corruption; bring down dictatorships across the world and give a voice to voiceless.
Of course, we can all point to examples where this potential has been fulfilled: facilitating protests in Tunisia during the Arab Spring; exposing human rights violations in Syria and other war torn countries; enabling direct democracy in places like Reykjavik after the financial crisis. But, it’s becoming harder to avoid the conclusion that - on balance - technology is more of a threat to democracy than an enabler.
How did this happen? Fundamentally, its because we forgot that “technology is not destiny”. There is no DNA embedded within the internet that pre-ordains its direction, purpose or usage. Instead, it is a product of the institutions and norms which govern it.
And, for too long, the development, governance and application of technology has primarily been left to a small set of developers and tech firms in Silicon Valley. From day one governments have been on the back foot: unable or unwilling to actively shape digital governance. It is therefore unsurprising that it has instead evolved in the interests of the tech industry, rather than the population at large.
But – as examples like Cambridge Analytica continue to emerge – its is increasingly clear that this will have to change. We need our politicians – who are largely silent on these issues - to start a public conversation about the future of the technology and the internet. We need our education system to teach kids not just how to use these technologies but also the implications of their usage of them. And, we need our legislation – and our public institutions - to bind tech firms into using our data and information responsibly.
This latest Facebook data scandal is wake-up call: we must take control of technology, before it takes control of us.
Harry Quilter-Pinner is Head of Research at the Fourth Group, an organisation is looking to create a new politics for the digital age. He is also a Research Fellow at IPPR, the UK’s progressive think tank and Director of Strategy at SCT, a homelessness and addictions charity. He writes here in a personal capacity.