A Tale of Three Internet Ecosystems

While regulation is an important, if low-hanging objective, the far more important question is how we deal with technology companies and the way they interact with society. Credit: Kristina Alexanderson.

While regulation is an important, if low-hanging objective, the far more important question is how we deal with technology companies and the way they interact with society. Credit: Kristina Alexanderson.

The citizens of Brazil, India and China woke up to three different sorts of nightmares on Thursday morning.

In India, Internet users discovered—to the surprise of no one— that a technology company that had assumed great importance in the lives of its users was abusing that very same power to further its corporate agenda.

To the west, in Brazil, residents woke up to news that starting Thursday evening, WhatsApp would be banned in their country for 48 hours; a nightmarish scenario that was caused by months of telecom lobbying, an inept Government and a highly questionable judicial decision.

In China, citizens, as the joke goes, wake up to the whims of the Chinese government. On this particular Thursday, however, the country’s Internet ecosystem was playing host to what is quickly becoming an annual affair: the ‘World’ Internet Conference. (I draw attention to the word ‘world’ here because it is primary a Chinese affair, with participation mostly from state and non-state actors who subscribe to or tacitly endorse the country’s methods of Internet governance.)

Rather than trying to hide that China is currently undergoing one of its harshest ever periods of online censorship, the ruling Communist Party of China has packaged the lessons it has learned from controlling the Internet and defanging Silicon Valley companies and flaunts it in the form of an almost-academic conference. While there is much to take away from the World Internet Conference, especially with regard to digital sovereignty and governing a border-less world, it must be haunting for China’s netizens and online activists to see China’s internet governance ideology being given legitimacy by sections of the global cyber community.

While the nature and circumstances of each situation differ drastically, the heart of each problem stems from a similar source: the intertwining of the Internet and society has a tendency to place the interests of the state, the technology industry and the citizen at opposing ends.

The juxtaposition of these three countries highlights the various consequences that can arise from this conflict of interests particularly well.

India:  Free Basic Algorithms

The stakes for the net neutrality battle in India were raised on Thursday after Facebook decided to engage in a spot of public advocacy — in the borderline creepy, manipulative style that it has come to be well known for.

Users who logged in were greeted with a message that was titled “Act Now to Save Free Basics in India”, an emotional plea that pointed out how a “small, vocal group of critics” were lobbying to have basic Internet access banned and a pre-filled out e-mail message that users could send to TRAI (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India) in order to help the “1 billion Indian people who can’t afford to access any service”. What it didn’t say of course is that Facebook’s Free Basics initiative will undoubtedly benefit Facebook the most and that there are a number of other more open initiatives that are worth considering.

The icing on the cake was that users also received notifications throughout the day informing them that their Facebook friends had signed on to support digital equality; even though in certain cases, it appears, their friends had done nothing of that sort.

An Economic Times story ran with the headline “Facebook’s Save Free Basics campaign draws flak for being misleading and exploiting”. The reasons for the immediate unease that arose were clear: Facebook wasn’t adequately informing its users of the issue at hand and in certain cases was potentially deliberately misleading its users.

What caused further apprehension was that Facebook (out of all things Facebook!)— the social media giant that had proved to be so friendly and useful during incidents like the recent Chennai floods and the Paris terrorists attacks— was turning against them so effortlessly and effectively to further its own corporate agenda.

The missing piece of the puzzle here is that the net neutrality debate in India has so far been affected adversely by the absence of any sort of state or government intervention: the first ever paper on net neutrality that was put out by the TRAI was back in 2006 and yet nearly 10 years later, India has no legislation or even regulatory inkling as regard to what it should do about net neutrality.

Brazil: A Long Free-Fall in Internet Freedom

The problems that have come to afflict Brazil’s Internet ecosystem over the last year are numerous, but the one that kicked-off the WhatsApp ban was an issue that affects most countries that aren’t the United States and the Five Eyes. According to the Associated Press, a law enforcement investigation in the Sao Paulo state required the wiretap of certain WhatsApp accounts. Despite multiple attempts at contacting Facebook Brazil (the parent company), WhatsApp officials failed to respond, which then prompted the judge of a lower Sao Paulo court to order that the instant messaging service be blocked because it wouldn’t hand over user information.

Brazilian telecom companies, who have been lobbying for years to regulate WhatsApp or make it declared illegal, were only too happy to carry out the ban—until it was reversed later (after being blocked for 12 hours) by a state judge. Whether the fundamental issue was legitimate (foreign technology companies participating in local law enforcement cases) or not was rendered irrelevant by the series of bumbling decisions that followed; ultimately resulting in Brazil’s population being unable to access a vital communication tool for 12 hours.

What is tragic is that WhatsApp bans aside, Brazil’s horizon looks positively gloomy.  The South American country was, as little as two years ago, seen as a role model and a forerunner in the fight for Internet freedom; in the fight against U.S surveillance and Silicon Valley dominance. The country’s Congress, under the prodding of President Dilma Rousseff, passed the widely-hailed Marco Civil in 2014—an Internet-specific “Bill of Rights” that protects freedom of speech, net neutrality and online privacy.

Since then, as Tech Crunch notes in detail, Ms. Rousseff has had a number of other pressing issues to worry about. With her approval rating plunging and the possibility of her facing an impeachment battle looming, a conservative bloc of politicians in Brazil’s Congress have introduced a host of bills that would undo much of what the Marco Civil stands for and replace it with a host of draconian laws. One particular piece of proposed legislation—nicknamed the ‘Big Spy’—is a surveillance law straight out of Orwell’s 1984: Brazilian Internet users would have enter their phone numbers, home addresses and tax IDs in order to access any website or app on the Internet.

It is unclear how much of Brazil’s anti-U.S surveillance agenda —which was lauded and heralded as a new chapter of global Internet governance—will continue in the months and years ahead.

Three Internet Ecosystems, Three Outcomes

At one level, it’s easy to see how the problems of India and Brazil perversely mirror one another and why they may be looking to China for solutions.

In India, the lack of government intervention allows corporate and public interests to clash spectacularly, with firms such as Facebook, Google, Airtel and Reliance currently winning; net neutrality is currently being, and has been, violated while the TRAI twiddles its thumbs. In certain cases, for example, with regard to user privacy, the state and its actors benefit immensely from the lack of Internet-specific privacy legislation—programs like the Central Monitoring System are allowed to run amok without any concrete supervision.

In Brazil on the other hand, the legitimate fear of a U.S-dominated Internet and the legal headaches that come with it have prompted the country’s judiciary and legislative bodies to err on the side of over-regulation. For instance, the reasoning behind the WhatsApp ban in Brazil is a problem that plagues India as well. As ORF’s Arun Mohan Sukumar notes, Indian authorities rightly believe that the argument that the ‘U.S technology sector is standing up to countries around the world to protect user information’ is largely baloney.

Nevertheless, the Brazilian court’s decision to block WhatsApp is an egregious overreach: if Internet access is a human right, as the United Nations believes it is, the blocking of a critical communication channel such as WhatsApp over largely flimsy grounds is nothing less than a human rights violation.

It’s clear to see why Indian and Brazilian officials could be casting looks of longing towards China’s neatly ordered ‘World’ Internet Conference and dream of visions wherein they rule their own Internet ecosystems with an iron fist. Many in the developing world, and indeed many in India, looked towards Brazil and its Marco Civil as an example of how Internet governance could be done right in a democratic country. And yet, as we’ve just seen, without constant vigilance and a strong foundation, the values that we associate with Internet freedom can be easily cast away.

China on the other hand offers easy solutions that shouldn’t be immediately overlooked just because they are coupled together with other authoritarian measures. China recently instituted a licensing system for online taxi companies which requires them to host user data on Chinese servers. It helps immensely of course that China has made sure that no foreign technology company is allowed to corner even a decent chunk of market-share within the country.

It’s an extremely dangerous tightrope to walk and countries such as Brazil and India will be the first ones to clamber onto the rope. Their goal: to fend off U.S surveillance and Silicon Valley colonization while making sure they don’t succumb to the authoritarian tendencies that are all too prevalent in developing countries.

If the battle that Americans must fight is the nexus between the NSA and Silicon Valley, the battle that developing countries must fight is protecting their digital sovereignty while still cherishing the values of a democracy. Europe’s battles fall somewhere between these two.

Privacy and net neutrality regulation, however, are clearly the low-hanging fruit. It’s simply a process of realizing that the current system is unjust and that by slow legislative fixes, we can put bandages over the bleeding wounds.

Where India and Brazil and other democracies are still finding their way is in dealing with the importance of technology companies and the way their services are embedded in modern society. These countries can’t simply wish away the free market, the way China does. And even if they could, there’s no reason to believe that an Indian-version of Facebook would treat its users more benevolently than a Silicon Valley-based Facebook; the business models of Baidu and Google are equally antithetical to a layman’s notion of privacy.

India woke up to the perils of trusting Facebook yesterday morning, but if we had been paying batter attention, we would’ve seen how social media organizations and technology companies are shaping life in the United States. In 2014, Harvard professor Jonathan Zittrain pointed out how Facebook was already engaging in engage in civic-engineering experiments and potentially affecting the outcomes of Congressional midterm elections by nudging indifferent voters to the voting booths.

Never before have profit-driven corporations been able to gather such intimate data on people’s thoughts and lives and never before have they been able to use that data to affect the lives of those same people. It’s a bit difficult to clearly think about companies like Google and Facebook—simply because no country has ever had to deal with the likes of Google and Facebook. These information barons, as technology critic Nicholas Carr puts it, don’t “fit neatly into our existing legal and cultural templates”.

Ten years ago, we could have genuinely believed that these companies were giant information-processing machines that existed outside the realm of human control. Now, we know better. We know that their algorithms reflect the interests and biases of their creators. And because these interests and biases are imposed on us, we have both a right and responsibility to treat the search engine that mediates our intellectual explorations and the social network that mediates our social interactions with deep suspicion.

How should we deal with them though? Does it involve examining the socio-political agenda behind these companies? Using that private data for the public good instead? Exerting control over specific algorithms with measures such as Europe’s Right to be Forgotten?

Perhaps time will tell. One thing is clear though. In this regard,  China, India and Brazil are equally blind.


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