Book Review: Blown to Bits: Your Life, Liberty, and Happiness After the Digital Explosion

100 shades of democracy, freedom and digital openness

Digital technology has become an intrinsic part of our lives, as a mean for gathering instant information at the tips of our fingers to the way we communicate and relate to others as well as to express ourselves, learn and even how we do business. Let’s face it, our lives aren’t the same if we don’t have a computer or tablet before us. We feel lost and certainly, isolated. However, the way we perceive the internet isn’t exactly what it is: there are always two sides to a story and the digital world isn’t precisely exempted. It depends how and where we look at it.

Sure, we can get almost infinite amounts of information in the blink of an eye but it doesn’t come for free.  What do we exchange besides the monthly fee for having internet service? For starters, our privacy, plain and simple.  First, once we get online –through our computers, tablets, mobiles, GPS, credit cards or any other digitally enabled device– everything we do, every place we go to, everything page we visit, talk about, and write is recorded. Yes, in our hard drives, ISPs servers, credit card databases, websites, by our cell phone companies, etc.

And it is organized and archived permanently. Those chunks of bits of information about us will not disappear even if we erase our hard drives, delete that awful comment of Facebook or cancel that credit card transaction, it won’t go away ever.  The main problem is who has access to this information, and the answer is terrifying: everyone that can get ahold of those records or who knows where to look for them while transactions are taking place on the virtual world.  Yes, the good, the bad and the ugly can obtain information about ourselves that we wouldn’t like anyone to know.

The positive side of this is that this information could become quite handy in case of a problem, an accident or if anyone fall victim of criminal incident, as well as for finding patterns and customize our commercial preferences but also can be used to cause harm or commit crimes against us. Funny thing is that the information we exchange online is basically visible by everyone who is looking in the right direction, but in case of foul play, the police cannot access those records without a court order that specifies which information is being searched and how will it be used for.  But also, if that information follows certain patterns that could raise National Security flags, “Big Papa” government will be paying attention and scrutinizing what we exchange, when where and to whom, and under the Patriot Act basically has every right to do so.

Perhaps, nowadays, our most sensitive data such as address, social security number, credit card is granted protection particularly for commercial purposes (retailers, banks) so that we can feel safe about exchanging money online but we are also exchanging a lot of information that we may not provide voluntarily in any other circumstance, and that we may not even want no one to know about.

That’s also the cost of freedom: it is virtually impossible to limit this information from those who would use it in harmful ways without making it unavailable to those who have good intentions, because as opposed to Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report fiction novel, we still cannot foresee the future and figure who will use it for what intent and when so it has to available to everyone for better or worse. That’s democracy. Same happens with open data, and open source software, it is there for everyone to use, edit, contribute to create something bigger and better that will assist others but a criminal use of it cannot be prevented only prosecuted once it happened.

The organizations and corporations that collect our bits of information, try to protect our privacy either by masquerading this data so that the data couldn’t be immediately matched to a particular person or name (which by the way, can easily be done through reverse research) or also by encoding such data. Which one is been used by so many of the places that we log in to? For the most part, when it comes to money exchanging hands (i.e. online purchases or bank transactions) our information is encrypted using a system of certifications, locks and keys that as of now has proven to be undecipherable but that also is subject to change without notice if a criminal mind can find a way to decode it and it is also on the hands of those who legally have the key to decipher it. So how secure are we really? Only time will tell.

In the face of bias

If we ever thought that the information available on the virtual world through search engines is bias-free, and completely open, we may need to rethink it again.

First of all, search engines are programmed using algorithms. Those algorithms aren’t self-programmed, they respond to a person who writes the code and, since the web became such a good commercial ground and a fantastic mean for marketing to target specific groups or people, it also responds to these particular interests, who also gather information about our online behavior to provide to us what they believe we are looking for. In a broad and somehow arbitrary way, we may not get the same commercial advertisements that our neighbor or our friends, because our digital habits aren’t the same. Same happens with the different search engines we employ to find the information we are looking for, since whoever sets the algorithm does it how he believes the best results will show up. Each one of those search engines could even show totally different results from one another. Does this mean one is right and the others aren’t? Not really, it depends on the perspective of the person or persons behind the algorithm regarding what is a good result so we are subject to bias! How could someone know what is the best result regarding a piece of information we are looking for? Well, there’s no good or bad answer because in order to get the best results for us or what we believe should be a good result, then it will have to be 100% tailored to each one of us, which is not only very costly but then it won’t be democratic and it has to be accommodating of everyone in our country. Other countries such as China, and India do practice censorship on search engines results so that the population couldn’t find something information considered subversive or against the government. This situation, even though we might not think about it, generates that our own search engines exercise self-censorship so that they still can do business in other parts of the world where digital regulation is handled differently.

Here comes the law

Legislation of the digital world better known as Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) and its constantly emerging technology especially since the Web 2.0 or the interactive web had emerged is far behind trying to catch up, adapt and foresee the next new thing and all the possible different uses that it could have besides the one that was originally intended for (whether for good or wrong purposes), as well as the variety of issues that could arise by it, such as happened with Napster. Napster, which in simple terms was an online directory, allowed others to exchange information that in most cases was copyrighted. Facing this unforeseen situation, organizations defending copyrights such as the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) pursue “infringers” by following their IP address. In many cases, this has been proven to be ineffective starting by the fact that the person attached to a particular IP address isn’t necessarily the perpetrator of a crime because IP addresses can be shared by a network, or even cloned, as computers can be hacked. Even after the mishaps “cyberpolice” still operating in the same fashion. But how does this impacts the law at this respect? In some cases, the law can prevent, delay or even forbid the irruption into the market of certain technology for which there isn’t proper legislation for the already foreseen uses that particular technology could enable; the current legislation at that respect hasn’t found common ground or it’s will turn around the current law. And we will never know that it even happened. Is this democratic and open? Some believe security should be priority over democracy; others believe should be the opposite. Who’s right or wrong? It depends on which side of the fence we are located.

Let’s take social media, blogs and content creation enabling platforms as another example. These platforms allow users to generate content using the site’s tools, and according to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, they can be held accountable for what has been published on their site if they have acted as a publisher or an editor. So no matter how vicious, radical, offensive or defamatory the content found on a particular site is, they are not liable or required to take it down because they didn’t requested, edited or directly publish it. They don’t have the control over what others post, because the moment that they start controlling what goes in and out, they will become publishers. Is that unfair for those who are being defamed? Yes, but shutting down these platforms would also be a transgression against freedom of expression of others. Unless, the speech posted clearly incites others to “lawless action” it can be considered illegal. Same happens with many initiatives intended to protect and regulate what kids can find online, such as the Child Online Protection Act (COPA), which tried to criminalize anyone who would make available content harmful to minors online. This proposal that never went into effect and others that followed it, faced the same challenge: by restricting online content, they were also restricting and censored others.

Legislation, though, can’t be too broad that any action could fall into the illegality bucket because most actions are found to lack a criminal component; and cannot be too narrow, that only serves a few.

So, is the online world democratic? As long as it serves the majority, even if all of us have to sacrifice privacy and sometimes security and safety, it would be.

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  1. Session 4 – Global Systems, Watchdogs and What Comes Next « UW Digital Democracy

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