Why Disconnected People of the World Should Unite

It is time to reflect on the Internet and its role from the perspective of the people, of the public interest and of society.

A man poses inside a server room at an IT company in this June 19, 2017 illustration photo. Credit: Reuters/Athit Perawongmetha/Illustration

A man poses inside a server room at an IT company in this June 19, 2017 illustration photo. Credit: Reuters/Athit Perawongmetha/Illustration

The Internet connects everyone and the whole world. But have you wondered how it works? Does it promote the democratisation of our society, either in communications, in the access to and production of knowledge, or in more horizontal and collective practices of the construction of our citizenship? Is the Internet contributing to guarantee the enforcement of human rights, to reducing inequality and discrimination? Who makes the decisions about the Internet?

The fact is that people use the Internet without thinking much about these things. We want it to be ever more agile, to have more functions, but we do not discuss nor follow the debate over its orientations; about how the Internet is changing economic, political and social relations. And if we (here I refer to social movements, to alternative communications media) are not discussing this, there are economic groups and governments that are thinking and making decisions on these matters in our place. And a good part of the people who think about this and who have political and economic power to decide on the course of the Internet do not think of the public interest when they make their decisions. 

It is, therefore, time to reflect on the Internet and its role from the perspective of the people, of the public interest and of society.

There is no question but that the new Information and Communication Technologies – centred in the Internet – today occupy a strategic role in society. In the cultural aspect and in communications, the Internet allows for the emergence of new contents, facilitates interactions that can generate new cultural and communicational references and practices; and it gives visibility to numerous manifestations and productions that remain unseen in the mainstream private media. On the other side, there is the emergence of the big Internet monopolies that restrict the circulation of this production.

This is because people are increasingly absorbed into the big platforms and become dependent on them. And the logic of these platforms is people’s likes, their clicks. This is why we should keep in mind the important debate on how we can guarantee cultural diversity in the Internet.

If the Internet intermediates almost all economic, social and cultural relations, if it becomes increasingly important for daily life, why do people not discuss these things?

First, because we are accustomed to simply use these technologies and tools, and that’s it. That’s the way it was and continues to be to a large extent with respect to radio, for example. As long as it works, the rest is not our problem. This is a cultural position, but one that we must begin to change, because in the digital world, in the world of the Internet of Things and of Artificial Intelligence, your offline life will be increasingly affected by the Internet and by the decisions that a small group takes about the Internet. 

The traditional private communication monopolies are now joined by new private monopolies that act in the field of the Internet; huge companies that today dominate the communicational arena and influence international trade and politics. Facebook, Google, Amazon, to cite a few of these businesses.

This monopolistic environment that is taking shape in the Internet is in complete contradiction to the construction of an open and free people’s Internet, one that dynamically promotes the circulation of knowledge produced by humanity and allows for its re-signification, that provides an incentive for the production of new knowledge and contributes to the emancipation of peoples. Many call the present stage of history of humanity “the information society” or the “knowledge society”, nevertheless, what we have seen is that the entrenchment of private monopolies in the Internet is giving rise to a society of “disinformation” or “lack of knowledge”.

Disconnected people of the whole world, unite!

The global population is practically divided into two halves in terms of access to the Internet. According to data released by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), at the end of 2017, 48% are connected and 52% disconnected in the whole planet.

With half of the world disconnected, and with a reduced rhythm of growth of new connections, a new army of the digitally excluded is being created. Digital exclusion deepens the inequalities among individuals, families, regions and countries, determining new models of destitution and imposing new challenges for the struggle for the end of capitalist oppression.

This evaluation is from General Secretary of the ITU, Houlin Zhao, on the occasion of the launch of the latest report of the organisation on the situation of broadband in the world, the State of Broadband 2017, of the Broadband Commission of the ITU. Zhao notes that “the digital ‘cutting-edge’ countries are advancing even more, while developing countries in general are remaining behind”.

Comparing the connectivity between developed countries and those in development, the former have a penetration of 41.3% of access, while the less developed countries remain at 17.5%, according to data from the report projected for 2017.

The report points out the many advances that Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) are bringing to the world and in addition, shows that the global asymmetry in the use of these technologies is immense.

One might think that we are making good progress: that we already have close to 3.500 million people connected in the whole planet. The cold fact may seem good, but if we look more closely, we can see that it is not so.

The ITU document uses a study in Facebook to better detail the present situation of connectivity. In accordance with this study, undertaken in 75 countries of the world, an average of 94% of the population of these countries live within reach of a 2G mobile signal. Try connecting in 2G and see what happens! Almost nothing! And the document concludes, that “it is practically impossible to try out Internet in a safe and effective way through a 2G connection”. Only 76% of the world population has access to a 3G signal, and only 43% have access to a 4G connection. Thus the majority of the connected world continues to be under-connected, mainly those in developing countries. Unless people have the chance to migrate from 2G to 3G or 4G, they remain under-connected.

The challenges of digital exclusion are not limited to access to the infrastructure. There are problems such as the lack of local content and services, violations of free circulation of content and lack of skills for the use of the Internet.

Production of content for the people

Although they still have limited access, and are faced with the power of private broadcasters, alternative, independent, popular and community media are no longer allowing the media barons to be the only voices heard. The monologue has become a dialogue, a “multi-logue”.

As the web developed, new mechanisms of distribution of content arose. Social sectors historically excluded from public debate, structurally left invisible by the mainstream media, began to use Internet to communicate, in order to tell their own stories, to express their opinion on current events and even to contradict what the media divulged as “truth”.

Alternative media have become a reference and come to assume a definitive role for the dissemination of facts and events that are omitted by the mainstream media. This is essential for disputing ideals and values in society and is increasingly vibrant and thriving.

Microblogs, then blogs, the first social networks and the possibility of creating digital platforms to distribute content produced anywhere, have created a new ecosystem of communication, which has been growing stronger and gaining relevance in public debate.

Despite these advances in the field of alternative media, we must underline that we should not confuse the existence of millions of content items on the Internet, with diversity. The majority of the contents are in English, for example. It is essential to promote the production of content in other languages.

Walled gardens and the dictatorship of algorithms 

The advancement of private monopolies, such as Facebook, increasingly absorbs the Internet into their realm, in practice reducing diversity.

Facebook has reached the impressive figure of two billion users in the whole planet. Approximately 25% of the world population is in the platform founded by Mark Zuckerberg. This should be motive for a serious and deep reflection on the role of this social network in today’s society.

Facebook is absorbing the Internet within its “timeline”. Today, few people navigate across the Internet. They go to Facebook and stay there, reading news headlines, personal and institutional entries, photos and videos, but they rarely make the click to go to the original content. 

In addition, Facebook has created new functionalities so that you feel more and more “at home” and do not want to go out. Why should you leave? For example, if you want to publish a video, you can publish it directly on Facebook. For live transmission, use Facebook Live. Moreover, if you do not do this, your input is likely to be sabotaged. Try to compare the result of video messages on other applications and those on Facebook, and you will see the difference. Facebook is like a dead-end street.

Another Internet giant, Google, makes decisions that can gravely affect democracy and the free circulation of information. For example, what are the indexation criteria that Google employs to filter the results of a search? Now, for example, with the discussion about the proliferation of fake news, Google has changed their search engine to index on the first page of search results only “certified” news stories. Which are these? They are precisely those produced by the mainstream monopolistic media. Thus a business decision on how to define the algorithm of a search can affect freedom of expression and democracy.

In addition, these platforms have introduced the dictatorship of the timeline, of the world in 140 characters (now 280) or in one-minute videos. It is not possible to build critical conscience about society, or to produce and spread knowledge in such an environment. Again, the excess of information is not good in itself. It can even be bad, because it may take our attention away from what is important, and transform it all into ephemeral things. We are literally losing memory in the face of an excess of images and information.

Internet and these private platforms are captured by and allied with the economic interests of the big copyright companies. Contents have been removed without any notification or explanation, due to supposed violation of copyright; this is a form of violation of freedom of expression.

The same thing happens with journalistic production. As we have already mentioned, Google is reducing the indexation of content produced by independent and alternative web portals, sites and blogs. Facebook is signing economic alliances with newspapers and reviews; the algorithms that dominate these platforms are totally closed and without any transparency. In various countries, there are already studies on how these networks and the use of data and algorithms are interfering in political decisions and electoral processes.

The market in personal data

Another aspect of the private control that the monopoly is exercising through the Internet refers to the collection and commercialisation of personal data, and the problem of privacy.

We are being monitored 24 hours a day, seven days of the week. All the time, everywhere. In some cases, we can be monitored even as we sleep. Every breath, every step, every kilometre on the road, every click in a social network, every channel change on television, every physical or virtual purchase that we make generates data and information that is being stored, processed and commercialised without our knowledge, without our agreement, without any transparency.

The Internet and super-connection, where every day more people and more things are connected for more time, generates an infinite amount of data that already for many years has been stored (Big Data) and that are now being processed and sold: a multimillionaire market for companies and even governments.

That is to say, the Internet, which should be a platform for democratisation, can become an instrument of control.

All this panorama that I have described very synthetically and briefly, faces us with the challenge of building concrete proposals as to how to face this scenario, by developing mechanisms of empowering people so that they know, not only how to use the Internet in an instrumental way, but how to transform it into a tool that is effectively at our service as citizens and part of the construction of a more democratic society.

We should, therefore, be discussing a positive agenda of dissemination and initiative in the use of free software, building public policies of application such that these private companies have to follow rules of transparency, national laws for the protection of data and privacy, among other things.

We need to strengthen the spaces for training, for capacity building so that people can use Internet and take back control of its processes, intervene in debates on public policies for the Internet and act to guarantee that Internet will have a multistakeholder governance, and will not remain totally at the mercy of private interests.

The possibilities are innumerable. The technology and the platforms take on the form of the use that we make of them. And we want to use the Internet to promote citizenship, democracy and sovereign integration among our peoples, in the search for peace and the reduction of poverty. This may appear to be a utopia, but the Argentine movie maker Fernando Birre taught us that’s what utopia is for, to make us move on.

(Translated for ALAI by Jordan Bishop)

Renata Mielli is a journalist, General Coordinator of the National Forum for Democratization of Communications, which brings together hundreds of entities from all of Brazil. General Secretary of the Centre of Studies of Alternative Media, Barão de Itararé, she is also part of the Broadband is Your Right campaign and of the Coalition of Network Rights.

This article partly reflects the presentation made by the author at the forum: “Dialogues for a people’s Internet: Our America towards the Internet Social Forum” (Quito, September 2017).

It was first published in ALAI’s Spanish language magazine América Latina en Movimiento (528-529, Nov 2017) titled “Internet ciudadana o monopolios” (A People’s Internet or Monopolies)

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