In what has to be a direct rebuke to anyone who has ever called the United Nations boring and out of touch, last week the organization proved that not only can it talk tech with Generation Mac, but it has a wickedly ironic sense of humour. It hosted its annual Internet Governance Forum in Turkey, a country run by a government that hates the Internet. Though “hate” may be too gentle a word. Turkey’s elected authoritarian, Recep Erdogan, refers to social media in terms usually reserved for entities you want to torture rather than merely kill, calling it “that thing” and “the curse of society today.”
Turkey, however, is just one site of global digital contestation where populations wrestle with governments and corporations over the right to wield the web. The Internet has been heralded as a democratic utopia, but it isn’t a place, or even an ideal no-place; it’s a tool, and it’s being both dulled and hijacked by actors that are using it to chip away at two foundational liberal democratic principles: the freedom of expression and the right to privacy. Some states suffocate dissent by choking off the flow of information online; others gather information about online communication, dissenting or not. But increasingly, states are simultaneously restricting information streams and monitoring them in the bizarre confluence of censorship and surveillance.
The most obvious way for a government to protect itself from the geyser of digital information is to block it outright. China blocked Facebook. Turkey blockedYouTube and Twitter. Iran blocked “women” from search engines. It’s an ugly way to suppress communication, but it’s effective.
Liberal democracies, however, don’t want to look ugly. They want to look liberal. They want to look democratic. So courts, legislators and corporations are restricting communication with cagey subtlety, narrowing or obscuring information streams rather than damming them off. Two recent restrictions are deeply troubling.
First, this year the European Court of Justice ruled that Google can’t link to content that becomes “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant.” The ruling is commonly called the “right to be forgotten”; it’s better described as “the right to hide an unflattering and inconvenient history that needs to just go away now, please.” This, of course, isn’t a right at all, and is actively hostile to democratic decision-making, which depends on information being transparent, not hastily buried under digital camouflage.
Second, where information can’t be hidden, it may be slowed down. Matched only by cute cat videos and the ability to instantly read messages from a lover on the other side of the world, the most beautiful feature of the Internet is the principle of net neutrality. This principle means that all data is equal: any person should be able to go to any website without any company impeding their access. Most online traffic, however, flows through the United States, a country that may soon divide the cyber highway into slow lanes and fast lanes. Internet service providers want to charge websites to be quickly accessible, and the Chair of the Federal Communications Commission wants to let them. Companies like Amazon could afford the cost while small activist sites couldn’t — but we’d all be impoverished for it. In democratic politics as in life, fair decision-making depends on having equal access to information.
Luckily — or not — it isn’t in the interests of governments or corporations to restrict so much information that there’s nothing left to monitor. Surveillance analysts have spied on distinctly non-terrorist actors like law firms representing rival foreign corporations and their own romantic interests — we’d be foolish to trust they won’t spy on critical journalists, politicians and activists. And in democratic politics as in life, free decision-making depends on the ability to hold private opinions and conversation.
But perhaps the least attractive feature of online surveillance is that even Turkey’s Internet-hating government likes it: recent legislation allows Turkey’s intelligence agency to collect all private data without court orders. On a maybe-not-totally-unrelated note, YouTube’s up and running again.