The Internet at 50: Surveillance, Censorship, Control

2019 is the birthday year – the Internet is 50 and the WWW is 30. What started as a borderless free exchange of information and views, mainly between academic users, has transformed into a fully commercialized and ubiquitous communications mechanism. So ubiquitous, indeed, that it seems difficult to imagine life without it. So essential to our existence that we now debate the merits of free broadband access and create satellite systems to enable 100% global coverage.

But we are now at the point where individuals and governments see this transformation as much as a threat as an opportunity. The ability of any internet user to connect with any other user or server anywhere was always an autocrat’s nightmare – a sudden loss of control over information flows meant an inability to suppress political opposition or organisation, secure physical borders were now powerless to block the spread of dangerous ideas and news unfiltered by censorship. At the same time the rapid commercialisation of the WWW has created some of the world’s biggest companies – so big that their expansion has taken them into the provision of finance, computing power, and technical innovation (whether through R&D or acquisition). Freedom of communication across borders, most often anonymous and frequently encrypted, has facilitated crime, terrorism, sabotage and political interference.

None of this was even remotely envisaged by the Internet’s founding fathers. So much so, that Tim Berners-Lee has launched a ‘Contract for the Web – A global plan of action to make our online world safe and empowering for everyone.’ It is a worthy attempt to restore a lost ideal, but may have come too late. Much is now invested in returning to a status quo that existed before the Internet, a re-assertion of surveillance, censorship and control.

Surveillance

‘Once we searched Google, but now Google searches us’

Every time you use the Internet you are donating your data (information about yourself) to various service providers, online sellers, social media or information providers. The things they provide may be ‘free’, but the data you unwittingly provide about yourself is extremely valuable. The Internet watches what you do, and people who want to shape what you think buy data about you and use it to feed you advertising, news, information etc. – all designed to influence your thoughts and behaviour. Shoshana Zuboff has described this new phenomenon as Surveillance Capitalism, and warned of its dystopian potential. Aral Baklan summarises the problem rather neatly.

Censorship

For more than two decades China has sought to restrict access to foreign websites. The list of websites blocked in mainland China shows how the Chinese Internet experience differs quite radically from that outside China. There is a global exchange of opinion and information from which Chinese Internet users are absolutely excluded. At the same time, this has created an environment in which Chinese companies can become enormously successful by copying non-Chinese Internet companies and services and making their products available to China’s 700 million plus Internet users:

These replica services are allowed to operate because they co-operate with state censorship processes, and frequently practise self-censorship in order to remain within state-approved guidelines.

The elaborate and technically complex arrangements that seal China off from the global Internet – the ‘Great Firewall’ – have created, in turn, a new export industry for China. Other countries with strong autocratic tendencies have bought the technology in order to insulate their populations from various degrees of external influence. Thus, the Chinese model of censorship has spread beyond its own borders, and is gradually returning the world to a pre-Internet condition where physical borders were a reliable insulation against dangerous ideas.

Internet censorship in Russia lags behind that in China by more than a decade, but since 2010 has been gathering pace, partly as a result of importing some of China’s firewall technology. Russia celebrated the Internet’s fiftieth birthday by passing its Sovereign Internet law – a set of measures requiring ISPs to install technology that would enable the sealing off of Russia’s networks from the outside world – a de facto ‘digital iron curtain’ as some observers have noted. The official justification for this is ‘security’ – the ability to defend against any future foreign interference with Russian cyberspace. But one man’s security is another man’s repression. ‘Interference’ can easily be defined as the promulgation or discussion of information and ideas unwelcome to the authorities.

Control

Censorship and control work hand-in-hand, so draconian censorship regimes are a critical aspect of restricting the information flows that might threaten a state-approved narrative. At the same time, Big Data works with the Internet to enable control mechanisms to become ubiquitous and rigorous. Dissent can be detected and punished with ever greater accuracy.

China’s Social Credit system exemplifies this trend. Beginning as a trust-oriented financial credit score mechanism in 2014 (the most strict regimes always seem to feel they need some sort of excuse – Russia’s Sovereign Internet is a parallel instance), it is rapidly evolving into a more generalised imposition of ‘good citizenship’. Access to travel*, transport, communications, loans, education, employment and other things is rapidly becoming conditional upon the individual’s social credit score – a social control mechanism of Orwellian proportions. The introduction of face scans for mobile users is indicative of the ambition and reach of the social credit system. The Chinese authorities are achieving rapid implementation by adopting an ‘organic’ approach: a combination of public bodies, local government and private companies are all engaged in building the social credit infrastructure, with full integration under state control introduced gradually according to technical capability. This both speeds implementation while temporarily disguising a dystopian endgame.

The problem of social control is not confined to authoritarian regimes. Workplace surveillance gives a flavour of how surveillance and AI can create a reward/punishment process in a different type of system. The 5G Internet of Things will put this process on steroids as the Internet turbocharges the collection of data, and AI evolves to automate its analysis. Philip N. Howard in his book Pax Technica: How the Internet of Things May Set Us Free or Lock Us Up has warned of privacy threats that are enormous, and the clear potential for social control and political manipulation.

Meanwhile, India is trying to build the world’s biggest facial recognition system. Here again, we can see the potential for abuse as a population’s movements and activities are monitored and recorded.

*This aspect of social control, restricting the movement of populations, is fascinating. Even before the emergence of the nation state, ‘taxation’ by force at key geographical locations marked the evolution of brigandage into a form of political and then social control. It has subsequently become a defining feature of the nation state, with internal control a defining feature of the autocratic state. This is particularly ironic in the case of modern China where a major extended military movement, the Long March, has become the central foundation myth of the communist state.

The ‘Splinternet’: Divergence or Convergence?

It has become fashionable to refer to the Surveillance/Censorship/Control process as the Splinternet – an acknowledgement that the original Internet’s geographical ubiquity has been broken, and is likely to become even more broken over time. This suggests that divergence is somehow inevitable, but there are a number of reasons to believe that this view is, perhaps, too simplistic:

  • Technical advances may may make it increasingly difficult to get the fly back in the bottle or keep it there: Amazon’s Project Kuiper plans a constellation of 3,236 satellites in Low Earth Orbit (LEO); SpaceX‘s Starlink LEO constellation is even more ambitious and plans to provide broadband Internet on a global basis; The OneWeb satellite constellation’s initial 650 satellites are currently being built out to provide global broadband services to people everywhere and is on track to provide global services starting in 2021. These and other facilities will make it ever more difficult to constrain the Internet’s inherent cross-border characteristics.
  • There is a price to pay for isolation. Availability of information and the ability to discuss it openly forms part of the social capital that underpins innovation and growth. Cutting a large population off from that social capital carries with it clear economic risk. At the same time partial suppression (denying access to but being unable to deny the existence of such social capital) carries the risk of encouraging social and political unrest.
  • Nobody can be sure of the impact of creating a digital underclass, especially a large and increasingly disenfranchised one, yet that is exactly what a control mechanism like the social credit system does. Outside China, the Internet of Things and Big Data threaten to create a different type of digital underclass, one where the price of access to services like insurance becomes prohibitively high, and employment opportunities become constrained. The existence of these new social groups, whether created politically or commercially, may create social volatility of a type never seen before.
  • The Internet’s biggest players, wherever their geographical location, appear to be taking similar developmental paths. Sheer size leads to abnormal monopoly profit, this in turn gives these players the capability to move into investment and financial services and challenge the pre-eminence of existing players in those fields. Facebook’s Libra venture may have hit problems but they are unlikely to give up. Meanwhile, other players will be watching closely, ready to learn from Facebook’s initial mistakes. Perhaps the successful strategy will be to commence less ambitiously and evolve by stealth into the ‘shadow bank’ that German MEP Markus Ferber warned against.
  • Alibaba, China’s biggest and most successful Internet company, is, as Wikipedia puts it, ‘the world’s largest retailer and e-commerce company, one of the largest Internet and artificial intelligence companies, one of the biggest venture capital firms, and one of the biggest investment corporations in the world.’ Alibaba’s global spread and diversification is extraordinary, not simply for its scale, but more so for the way it has bridged the China/West economic divide, avoiding the isolating ‘parallel universe’ effect of the Chinese Golden Shield project. It remains to be seen whether Alibaba’s example may be followed systematically by other Chinese companies, but if it is then the dangers of isolation will be mitigated and we will see a progressive convergence between the business models of the biggest Chinese and non-Chinese Internet players.

*

At this point the situation is so complex that it is impossible to predict how the Internet will evolve, but the vertiginous rate of change in Big Tech and Big Data guarantees that evolve it certainly will. Forces for divergence and convergence are both at work, while mechanisms of control seek to outpace the Internet’s potential for freedom.

This takes place against the background of a battle for ownership of the next phases of technological development, 5G, AI and the hardware on which they will run. Trump’s trade war becomes ever more volatile, while, as I write, the Financial Times has reported that ‘China tells government offices to remove all foreign computer equipment‘. As I have tried to make clear, contradictions and ironies abound:

  • The digital creation of a social credit underclass in China, this in a political system based on and legitimised by the erasure of old social class divisions.
  • Facebook’s ‘free market’ sale of customer data for the purpose of political manipulation

Perhaps the awakening occasioned by Facebook’s Libra project will mark the beginning of an era in which cross-border regulatory measures tame the Internet’s dystopian potential – or there again maybe not…

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