Why internet freedom is under threat
Is the dream of a free and accessible internet already dead? The FT’s Siddharth Venkataramakrishnan examines how different philosophical, political and social attitudes towards online privacy are creating a 'splinternet'
Filmed and produced by Tom Griggs. Graphics by Kari-Ruth Pedersen
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How should we think about privacy online? It's a vital question for programmers, politicians, and ordinary people. Tech companies like Facebook and Google have created online empires based on the access that they get to personal information. And that's in the US where individual freedoms are enshrined in the constitution. In other parts of the world governments and societies have a very different attitude towards privacy. So do these cultural and corporate conflicts over who is in control spell the end the internet as a free-flowing source of information for everyone?
According to the UN, privacy is a universal human right. But interpretations of what that means vary. The cultural traditions of Buddhism and Kantianism and differ sharply. The western Kantian tradition focuses on an individual's free will and autonomy, while in the Buddhist tradition the concept of the individual self is associated with selfishness. These differences aren't just a matter of philosophical debate. The way we think about online privacy determines how we regulate the use of information and will influence international standards for data protection. And the underlying understanding of what should be kept private and from whom can be fundamental to the way we think.
So should individuals have the right to control their own data? To a western-educated audience that might seem like a no-brainer. But the reality is more complicated. Anyone who uses social media has given away personal information, from their name and contact details to who their friends are and what they like to watch. That data is reprocessed, packaged, and sold on. The old adage if a service is free then you are the product has never been more true than when it comes to social media. Apple's decision to allow users to block apps from tracking data has brought this debate to the floor and followed on from Europe's GDPR in trying to give people control over who can access their personal information. However, the genie may already be out of the bottle.
During the rollout of its Aadhaar biometric identification programme India's government tried to assert that individual privacy was not a fundamental right, a claim that was rejected by the Indian Supreme Court in 2017. What's more, just because a society adheres to collectivist values does not mean that people don't want privacy nor should it cover up concerns about intrusive data collection networks such as China's social credit system, which is aiming to combine information about everything from criminal records to online shopping receipts to rate every citizen.
All of which raises the question, can these different visions of privacy coexist in a global internet? Or will it become a 'splinternet' in which national governments determine what information is available within their country's borders? The Great Firewall of China has already largely blocked off China's 1.4bn people from the rest of the world and is seen by other authoritarian governments as a model to emulate. It may be unrealistic to imagine that global ideas about privacy will converge. But left to national governments and ethics committees tacked onto the big tech companies the future of the internet looks increasingly bleak.