Blog

The battle for the internet

17 May 2012

Current debates on the right of governments to tap into ‘big data’ show that ICTs are reshaping traditional notions of privacy and civil liberties. The original ethos of the internet which was based the belief of an alternative world where governments and institutionalised social practices have no power (see Barlow’s declaration of cyberspace for that matter) shaped a culture of freedom. As such, it also created a strong sense of privacy and the right to be protected by anonymity or pseudonymity.

The emergence of social networks like Facebook and Google+ and their wide adoption by users across the globe gave a new twist to our understanding of privacy. The casual character and amateur flair of social networks, at the initial stages of their set up, led many users to disclose great amounts of personal information. The option to decide on one’s privacy level strengthened the illusion that users were in control of their data. As these social networks were gradually transformed into private companies this data in their possession became an invaluable asset. Users and their personal preferences became products that generate profit. Nonetheless, privacy practices on social networks have not changed. Moreover, their growing adoption for various activities besides communicating with friends (e.g. receiving news) makes it unlikely for people to opt out.

To this end, we are now confronted with the paradoxical situation where government monitoring of the net is rejected while surveillance from private companies is not questioned. Even more, social networks like Facebook are now perceived as safer spaces (i.e. walled gardens) for online social interactions than the rest of the internet. These new developments beg for further examination of the accountability of private companies over citizens and the reshaping of established notions of privacy.