Should the Internet be private? Ownership and control of information on the Internet.

Society and Information

Building reality

A complex network of interactions characterizes contemporary society. The modern citizen must understand the intricate and sophisticated processes that underlie social system interaction. Only then can he control the system in which he lives, with which he determines his future.

Citizens born endowed with enormous degrees of freedom, which they reconcile with family, with groups to which they belong, and with society as a whole. Their actions and effects evolve at local, national, and global levels, in progressively extended circles. Within these different contexts, citizens build constraining laws and conventions which vary in flexibility from simple appointments between two people, the universal charter of human rights, or a formalized scientific system of units or symbols like the alphabet. These common constraints serve as reference and regulation for all public action.

The making of these conventional buildings involves a flow of information transformed into meaning about a shared reality. Humans play their action using the information they receive from society and the knowledge they produce for it, being near or far, in an endless feedback cycle, with freedom and responsibility. Modern democratic leaders recognize the information and communication space as a “public good”. However, not every member of the collective has absolute control over the process of information sharing and diffusion. Beyond the complex network of contacts between citizens, certain entities control the most extensive flows and the most comprehensive channels. News media are the most important, but also governmental and private institutions. Today, online social platforms play an essential role. If not in introducing new Information, modulating the meaning and relevance of existing information flow.

Online media and collective speech

Social media platforms started on the verge of the popularization of the Internet around 1998, yet big scale social media appeared around 2003. Citizens nowadays expose themselves regularly to diverse content, and other opinions conveyed in online media. According to the latest statistics, people write 350,000 tweets every minute, share 300 hours of video on YouTube, and authenticate about 1 million persons on platforms like Facebook. As a result, but also as a cause, social media has now a vital role in the flow of human Information and the cohesion of modern societies.

There is a clear gap between the beliefs and opinions that individuals harbour and support and those which dominate society. The kind of speech collectively produced reflects this fact. The individual discourse is diverse and personal, the collective discourse is, as a general rule, normative. If the individual’s experience informs each particular discourse, the collective discourse emerges from a diversity of agents. Joint speech is the final result of a complex and selective process determined by opinion leaders and the news and the media.

Modern online media play an essential role in this process, and today they change the paradigm of interpreting mass communication phenomena. Citizens increasingly guide their interpretation of reality through the interpersonal information exchanges they carry out online. Facing these new possibilities of online interaction, we should review classic effects usually attributed to mass media like agenda-setting, priming, or framing.

Complex systems

To understand the dynamic circularity of the effect of the public sphere on individuals, and these on the construction of collective thinking, it is no longer enough to analyze just the impact of news media on the collective or carry out sample surveys of its influence individual expression. We have also to consider the myriad of personal interactions that occur daily in electronic and virtual environments.

Complex systems sciences developed concepts, methodologies, and techniques that help us understand these complex social processes. The role of this discipline is becoming increasingly important. Complexity sciences now involve the participation of network sciences methodologies and computational social sciences. These methods have already demonstrated being very fruitful in many real applications.

Information diffusion

The research that we set out to develop in 2015 seeks to approach the propagation and diffusion of Information from a minimalist point of view. Our work investigates the magnitude of popularity, the gathering of attention, that entities named in the public discourse collect over time. We examined their relative popularity magnitude and the mechanisms of its facilitation.

Epidemic messages

Our research found that the message content does not necessarily determine the magnitude of popularity entities gather. Message essence, format, or support, by itself, do not necessarily imply people will pay more or less attention. Popularity depends mainly on the social and material context in which messages propagate. Popularity, however, does make messages much more thought and apprehended by all. In this way, it strongly determines the collective belief and, consequently, the individual’s action. Quoting Bernard Cohen’s famous phrase: “the press (and the media) may not always be successful in telling people what to think, they are, however, extremely effective in telling people what to think about”.

The research work that we carried out shows that the popularity, as the attention that messages that enter society receive, obeys regular patterns. We found these patterns result from simple propagation mechanisms in which people pay more attention to the most famous messages, which, in turn, tend to be even more so. There is an unequal struggle between new messages with the messages that already propagate within the collective.

Over time, the evolution of popularity also obeys simple laws of dynamical evolution that reveal an epidemic mechanism on the spread of Information. The type of probabilistic distribution found is typical of multiplicative systems. Assuming that each message has a given ability to be heard, replicated, or else forgotten, we have shown that popularity follows a stretched configuration of a probabilistic Log-Normal distribution, affected by a novelty factor.

We also examined two case studies. We have shown that the popularity of parties or candidates, measured by the raw number of mentions in media, positively influences election results. It happens regardless of negative or positive opinions expressed. Votes closely follow the number of mentions of candidates’ names in the public sphere, regardless of candidates’ particular mentioned characteristics.

The massification and the liberalization of consumption made the popularity of brands and products an instrumental metric in modern economies. Popular things become emergent thoughts in each conscience. In this way, popularity and fame influence many economic and political processes. Popularity is also a significant factor in the building of collective memory. Popularity determines consumption choices, electoral acts, formulation, and dynamics of public opinion.

Surveillance capitalism

The current practice of personalized technological marketing changed the central role of fame and popularity in the consumer society favouring a specific focus on each individual. Nowadays, automatisms that assess each consumer’s different behaviour improve personalization and the dissemination of products. Big Internet companies like Google, Amazon, and Facebook analyze the Information that billions of users produce in their digital interactions. These large companies collect online data about users, and the trail generated in the digital interaction, the so-called ‘data exhaust ‘. Using this information and machine learning algorithms, they formulate profiles and categories of consumers.

An invisible appropriation of the individual’s Information characterizes the surveillance capitalism implanted in modern societies. Companies are collecting online data bargain with intimate and personal online activity. They manipulate the trace of citizens’ most intimate desires, beliefs, and intentions. This methodology expands into every type of mobile device, “wearables” and the “Internet of Things”. It is invading the private sphere.

The resulting data collected in the expropriation process is exchanged as raw material and sold on the market for personalized marketing. This data is traded and sold as a product, in the process of commodification of human behaviour. In consequence, online citizens, less and less, own their genuine freedom. This freedom is exchanged for an illusion of ease of use and the offering of free services. Afterwards, these are eventually cancelled and discarded, leaving, however, always, some trace of use and personal preference.

Information bubbles

This kind of business model serves the promotion of third party products and promotes the platform itself. Through this automatic editorial filtering, online social networks promote their consumption to the point of creating authentic closed rooms. These are called ‘ filter bubbles ‘, in which users become isolated from any content other than their favourite. The design of these platforms also limits the exchange of Information between similar individuals. They belong to similar social, political, and economic strata, which typically result in consensual environments.

Due to the substantial consolidation that ‘filter bubbles’ promote, intense polarization usually emerges in comments and debate. Individual beliefs are amplified and reinforced by repetition within a virtually closed system as in an ‘echo chamber’. The individual finds Information in this type of context that reinforces his vision. Eventually through an unconscious process of cognitive confirmation bias, but indeed not the best Information for him to consume and judge. In the case of political Information, debates, and opinion increase polarization and extremism. In the case of consumer information, there is a worst-case manipulation of the consumer and a substantial limitation in choosing. Generally, this social interaction phenomenon strongly restricts the pluralism of Information.

The control of Information

Hate speech

While it is challenging to isolate public online Information from the platform and political control, and the censorship of democratic expression, the Internet is not separable from the realm of laws and regulation. Applying the right legal responses to perceived online hate speech has become in recent years a difficult problem to solve. Online hate speech involves conflicting tensions between different groups within and across societies. Still, it also implies difficult balancing between fundamental rights and principles, including freedom of expression and the defence of human dignity. Adopted in 1789 by the French Revolution, and in 1791 as a feature of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, freedom of expression is recognized in international and regional human rights law. Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, Article 13 of the American Convention on Human Rights, and Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights assure this right. They mostly grant the right to freedom of opinion and expression; which includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. However, freedom of expression may easily conflict with other rights and freedoms, especially with others’ dignity.

Aggregating racial and violent activists, Stormfront, a website launched in March 1995, is considered the first “hate website”. It became a popular space for debate and incitement of Neo-Nazi ideology. Since then, multiple examples of the influence of hate-speech in social and political life emerged worldwide. Some of them, like the violent widespread street clashes around racism designated “black life matters”, the white supremacist movement, and the recent US elections campaigns, signal the dilemma between freedom of expression and official censorship.

In 2014, in Myanmar, to challenge the competition from two foreign mobile-phone entrants, the state-owned phone company offered pre-installation of the Facebook app in every device. To capture customers, mobile phone operators additionally provided the use of Facebook without paying any data charges. Facebook soon became the Internet in Myanmar, but it soon turned into a harsh battlefield between the Muslim Rohingya minority, the military, and the population. The conflict between the Rohingya in Myanmar and the military regime was not new. In 1982, the then-military government adopted a new Citizenship Law, effectively denying Rohingya citizenship and rendering them stateless. However, after the novel freedom of expression introduced by the proliferation of Internet access, hate speech invaded Facebook during the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar and experts blamed the social network for creating “chaos” in the country. To this day, the Rohingya people problem remains a serious humanitarian issue. After eight years of de facto detention in refugee camps, there is a profound sense of hopelessness among the 130.000 Rohingya displaced. Similar violent social conflicts occurred recently in other parts of the globe.

Many other examples of social unrest initiated on social media related to hate speech increase around the world. In India, mobs reported lynching innocent people after false reports of child-abduction and organ harvesting propagated through the messaging service Whatsapp. India is by far WhatsApp’s largest market in terms of a total number of users. In July 2019, WhatsApp reached 400 million monthly active users setting the platform as an essential political communication asset. The ruling party BJP recently addressed social media volunteers calling for heavy message propagation inciting latent anti-Islamic mobilization. In Sri-Lanka hate speech has also found fertile ground after the 2019 East bombings. The same has happened recently in Ethiopia where disinformation and hate messages triggered a spiral of ethnic violence pushing Ethiopia dangerously close to genocide.

‘deepfakes’ and fake news

“Deepfake” designates a new technological reality, already in development, in which an image or video of an existing person is realistically replaced with someone else’s likeness. In her recent book with the same name, Nina Schick, analyses this new potential danger, viable in a nightmare world, which will be impossible to distinguish between copy and original.

In the 2016 US presidential election, false news or ‘fake news’, as they were designated, took a predominant role: The problem of false information, misinformation, and mal-information are as old as the printed press. In the US and many other countries, one form or another of false news takes shape almost daily in many aspects of mediated communication. Because of its usually odd messaging, fake news tends to become viral, especially with online social media’s current pervasiveness. On the one hand, fake news can reduce the impact of real information by competing with it. On the other hand, it also has the potential to undermine trust in serious media coverage. The topic has been widely debated and discussed by journalists, media, and academia. A considerable amount of scientific effort is dedicated to the automated detection of fake news. However, due, to the many forms, supports, and contexts in which false or misinformation can emerge, the efforts seem not to be very successful. Some news outlets dedicated to fact-checking have become popular. However, their real impact on social phenomena like voting preference may not be as significant as expected.

Fora like Freedom House, the Forum on Information and Democracy, formally signed during the 74th UN General Assembly, or Access Now and Reporters Without Borders, among others, are now making efforts to elaborate recommendations for the almost chaotic world in which right and false Information propagates on the Internet.

Internet sovereignty

In 2014, responding to an appeal against Google for non-disclosure of personal data, the Supreme Court of the European Union declared the ‘right to be forgotten’ as a human right. In the same year, the Chinese government announced the implementation in 2020 of its Social Credit initiative in its final form. This initiative, in opposition to the EU rule, the government would start to score its citizens according to a comprehensive set of criteria about their behaviour.

The scoring of this behaviour would involve the valuation of the relation with the State (payment of taxes, credit, and fees), with other citizens (compliance with traffic rules, the education system, justice, and social assistance), and on the Internet (websites visited, shopping, fairness of expression). The application of the scoring would then result in privileged or denied access to trips outside the country, to flights and trains, as well as well-rated schools. Access to luxury hotels, social services, premium rated credit, internet services, and public employment would also be constrained.

The objective of this plan, according to the government, is threefold: combating economic inefficiency due to fraud, improving confidence in others, and re-educating the people through self-censorship. The moralizing responsibility of leaders in China is part of the tradition: the leader’s role is not limited to the governance but also consists of moralizing the people. Being stripped of ideological burden, or moral influence over their constituents, western rulers, don’t usually decide upon citizens behaviour. In China, however, people face the Social Credit plan and the pervasiveness of digital technologies in their own lives with unexpected optimism.

Although the potential danger of state ownership and control over a massive set of personal and behavioural data, which by its nature should be private, the Credit System seems not to be a cause of worry for the Chinese. There is heavy control over the Internet and civil expression in China. However, this control by itself does not seem to fully explain the almost non-existent aversion to the Social Credit System. As in the case of behavioural data collection that Internet companies carry out to control consumers, the Chinese government also intends to use an extractive and massive power of Information, this time not only online, as a control tool of the masses.

Further North, on December 23, 2019, Russian news agency Pravda announced that the first exercises in protecting the Russian Internet segment had been successful. Because Information is an essential component of society, controlling the Internet had become a clear objective for those seeking to have more power. The same month, the Russian government reconfigured with a click of a button all the addressing devices of their piece of the Internet, thus enforcing their rule over a crucial technological infrastructure. We should point that none of these devices had ever resided on Russian soil for reasons of network birth and growth.

Internet censorship, like website blacklisting, has always been a reality in Russia since it adhered the global Internet. Russian authorities have been thwarting freedom of expression on the Internet for several years. Blocking websites, including some run by President Vladimir Putin’s critics, the banning of VPN and anonymizer providers, have been customary practices. The cases have accumulated so evidently that this year the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) established that Russian website blocking was unlawful. The court unanimously ruled “that collateral blocking of an entire website is an extreme and disproportionate measure that violates freedom of expression and the right to an effective remedy”.

Always been advocated by Russian authorities since the beginning of the Internet, Russia has gained significant control over its internal Internet and the information disseminated among its citizens. Like the Chinese CCP and the Iranian Supreme Lider that also continue to foster severe Internet restrictions, the Russian government has firm control over part of this most democratic means of global communication. It’s worth pointing out that, since its inception, the Internet was intended to be governed by supra-national entities.

Dissemination and Information Control in Society

As we saw control over the means over which Information flows in society is a factor of power, manipulation, and profit. Knowing how popularity and notoriety are generated: through social processes of multiplicative interaction between people, but also through editorial decisions, content manipulation, filtering algorithms, and automatic behavioural selection processes pose a serious challenge to the whole society. Dissemination of Information is nowadays almost automatic, and we should know who controls the communication channels. Not only the content and the appearance, but also the framing, repetition, and reinforcement with which messages are presented, determine their perception and understanding. Thus we have to verify who is in control of these processes. We should aim for democratic and discretionary means of control to balance large concentrations of power.

The ownership of voice

In 2018 we conducted a study about the presentation of the theme ‘caste’ in India’s print media. We show that disadvantaged castes are almost exclusively associated with conflict, misery, and victimization, resulting from their deficient representation in the editorial rooms. Although politically correct for the sake of the publishers, this editorial policy is unrealistic and incomplete. It obliterates many other facets of life and customs of the majority of the population. There should be a favourable discrimination policy to level the representativeness of these castes in the news media. In other words, we defend that each one should express himself and speak for himself.

In an overly mediated society such as our own, there are now direct communication forms with the current technology. We should enhance these communication relations without subverting them with profit logic or political control intentions and societal engineering. People must view the sense of ownership of Information; the individual expression and the authenticity of the relationship between individuals with concern and seriousness. The coming into force of the General Data Protection Regulation of the EU in May 2018, and the Consumer Privacy Act of California, in January 2020, already signal times of change. At least in Europe and part of the United States, there is the political intention to value data ownership and personal information. It is necessary to ensure that this trend grows for the common good of all citizens. The release this year of the Digital Services Act and the Digital Markets Act by the European Commission also signals changes in this direction. The same with the recent debate about Section 230. If each producer of Internet content can be directly held responsible for his/her expression, there is no reason to further empower more tech platforms with automatic editorial paraphernalia. The voice should remain with the owner as well as his legal liability.

These are times when the role of raw nature and the physical body is changing our scientific understanding of mental life. On the other hand, human mental life depends every day more on technology. We should look for the correct balance between our essential human nature and what technology, the Internet, and the cyber world will demand from us and our living. In this sense, we should collectively assure that the control of the Internet remains democratic and free from any editorial manipulation in every aspect. Only in this way, as a simple means of communication, can the Internet promote a common good.

António Filipe Fonseca is an engineer and complexity science researcher.