Not that long ago governments around the world tried by multiple means to spread Internet connectivity across their territories with the goal of transitioning into the information society, a new era of knowledge and democratic progress, driven by networks, computers, and information flows. Today, almost three decades after the invention of the World Wide Web and with more than half of the world’s population connected to the Internet, policy makers, civil society organizations, technologists, academics, and activists are discussing how to maintain modern democracies and justice in a digital environment full of misinformation, disinformation, market concentration, data breaches, hate speech, cyberattacks, and other social ills.
During the Internet Global Forum (IGF 2019) that took place at UNESCO headquarters last week, French president Emmanuel Macron, made a call to build an Internet of trust through cooperation and sharing responsibility among multiple stakeholders. As Macron explained in a long speech that was featured as an opening keynote, the challenge of building trust is collective and multilateral, and needs to be addressed across all the layers of a complex and global digital ecosystem.
As we enter in the 21st century, it has become clear that the rapid technological change is not really strengthening democracies. Having more access to information and knowledge, moreover, does not really mean having more wisdom, and does not directly lead societies to equality and justice. More participation in content creation and circulation, also does not seem to have helped societies leveling up the playing field, and similarly, more access to educational content has not helped to close racial, gender, and socioeconomic gaps. Paradoxically, many of the promises of the digital revolution have turned out in practice quite the opposite to the good intentions and optimist ideals that characterized them. Are those outputs unexpected consequences of how the Internet and other digital technologies have been deployed world wide? Is this critical moment in time just a momentary phase of a long term process?
Rebuilding trust on the Internet, on private life, on private content, on networks, however, it is not an easy task. Through the debates, workshops, and panels at the IGF2019 participants exchanged ideas to solve the challenge of trust. Although there is no consensus on how to rebuild trust, representatives of multiple sectors agreed in that there is an urgent need to change the current dynamics. One of the strategies that can help in this daunting task, is to develop a more just and fairer regulation. So far, the digital revolution led by the United States has been driven by a neoliberal ideology of market freedom and disruption that although has accelerated the spread of innovations world wide, has also amplified socioeconomic inequalities.
The political economy of the digital era has promoted market concentration and the emergence of dominant technology corporations that in many cases have more power than states. Moreover, winner-take-all markets have overwhelmingly benefited specific regions of the Global North such as Silicon Valley, and other centers of power, leaving other geographies in a position of technological dependency. At the core of the current crisis of trust is the political economy of neoliberal capitalism, transnational and global, exploitative not only of natural resources, but also of human labor and personal data.
In order to build the internet of trust, it is necessary that multiple sectors become more reflexive and critical about developing and deploying new digital technologies at a global scale. At the IGF2019, discussions about artificial intelligence, blockchain, Internet of Things, and smart cities, emphasized the need for considering the ethics and politics of technological systems. The critical question, Do artifacts have politics? is more relevant than ever. At this moment of time it is evident that digital artifacts have been developed and deployed to promote a particular kind of economy, and have benefited certain population groups and geographies. Today, we know that race, gender, language, and geographies matter in cyberspace. The digital revolution has amplified existing structural inequalities, and new emerging technologies would perhaps accelerate the exacerbation of divides if we do not promote policy and design interventions that take into account diversity, plurality, and the structures of power and privilege.
With the spread of mobile devices, sensors, and micro-computers, furthermore, the Internet has colonized also the physical world, blurring the boundaries between online and offline worlds. Even more, it could be said, as some critical scholars have pointed out, that the process of digitization has also colonized the self. Human beings as users of digital technologies, have become also the subjects of data exploitation through extractivist processes that are complex, and happen every-time and everywhere. Living immersed in a surveillance environment that is constantly measuring us, collecting storing and analyzing personal data (most of the time) for marketing purposes, we are constantly being monitored, measured, and turned into data.
There is hope and lots of actions to take. The discussions and conversations we had in Paris, motivate us to move forward. I personally think that is through education and active learning that societies can address the challenge of building trust. It is also by embracing cooperation and collaboration among sectors, as Macron suggested, that we can design better systems and policies. Building the Internet of trust is a collective complex task that requires multiple hands, and commitment from private and public sectors. In order to overcome that challenge we should start by reconsider the political economy that has taken us to this point, and think critically on the kind of adjustments, ethical consideration, and distribution of wealth we would like for the future humans, animals, and the planet earth as a whole.