Digital Democracy

Any new technology is always used to progress old agendas. I believe that the internet has forever changed the relationship between the individual and the state; and it is continuing to drive that change. Where once it freed the individual from geographically specific cultural and legal norms, now the web can be used to observe and control.

The article ‘World Wide Delusion‘ brought forward my thinking about wider society’s understanding and resulting use of the internet. As society uses and understands more about the possible applications of the net, we move through the stages of 1. Awareness; 2. Utilisation (web 2.0); 3. Control (the future). I believe the development of the web is teetering on the edge of this last stage. Web geeks and the tools they once used for impromptu liberation are now being used for control in ever more diverse applications by government and big business, who crucially have the financial and legal power to back it up.

Oprah Winfrey and Stephen Fry‘s use of twitter exemplify celebrity endorsement and raising awareness of new technologies in the mainstream. Ignoring their status, they are simply individuals utilising the liberating aspects of web 2.0 to microblog their lives. However, the innocent liberation is coming to an end. As these technologies are popularised, governments around the world are more inclined to watch and censor our activities in a fashion that’s been most publicly performed by China. Where once we were protected by the anonymity of the web and trust in our government’s digital ignorance, we’re now facing a future where the web loses a lot of the impartiality that we once took for granted.

Across the world ISPs are being made responsible for the content that exists on their network. In New Zealand the so-called ‘Guilt Upon Accusation‘ law allows ISPs to disconnect individuals who are perceived to have violated copyright laws. The law allows this without any evidence or the scrutiny of a court. In the EU ISPs are newly required to track connections made through the net: i.e. net phone calls, the destination of emails (but not the content) and telephone calls. In the UK, business and government have recently cooperated to end the piracy of music on the internet. ISPs are given the option to voluntarily regulate their networks or face legislation.

Content is now also being censored. The ‘Great Firewall of China‘ is the obvious example, but similarly in the UK content is being filtered on our behalf by the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF). One high profile example of this included the blocking of a Wikipedia article that featured an image of a semi-naked child. In a country that prides itself on freedom of artistic expression, a debate about the image as a valid piece of art allowed the decision to be overturned. However, the worrying aspect of this example is that the decision was made without consultation or a published set of criteria. A sort of digital Guantanamo.

In fact Guantanamo Bay, although being decommissioned, is an example of the game-changing decisions that authorities are prepared to make on our behalf. Using fear of criminality such as terrorism, governments are legitimising increased levels of tracking on and offline. ID cards and a Police road camera network are just two instances where networked technology is being used to hold information on the individual. Each time you use your car, your journey will be recorded and kept for up to two years. Since most of my real world actions leave digital footprints i.e. Oyster card travel or mobile phone use, I can in theory be tracked. But that information is usually separately stored and subject to warrant to gain access. This era of control relies on centralised databases with instant access by the state.

The major issue surrounding each of these control mechanisms is that they come without regulation. Political agendas are bleeding onto the web and into our digital systems and I, as an individual, do not feel consulted on whether I agree. I believe if politics and law are allowed to encroach on our digital lives then democracy needs to follow. The control and collection of information cannot be left to unelected bodies without recourse. Governments must take back control, or at least understand the social and political climate of suspicion that they are allowing us to drift into. In the same way that the green agenda has been pushed to the fore, I look forward to a future election where digital control policies are a major point of debate.

The more information governments (or their agents) collect on the individual, the more power we give them. Without a digital democracy we must trust that this power is used wisely and with restraint. In the UK, I’m not convinced that our government will use my information for anything other than its own purposes. I’m concerned that these systems are so divorced from the political process that I have no way to affect their use.

Update 7 June 2009:UK ‘must log’ phone and web use“.

Posted on Tuesday 26 May 2009.

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