The internet is great. But the websites that use it aren’t. Privacy issues, marginalisation, and corporate monopolies – Madeleine Crutchley takes a look at the long list of ethical dilemmas they’ve created.
Lately, as I have mindlessly scrolled my way through Twitter, I have found myself thanking Tim Berners-Lee. Tim is the man who invented the World Wide Web. The British computer scientist made his idea freely available, with no patent, and no ability to make any royalties. His invention revolutionised the modern world, and this lovely man didn’t take a penny from our pockets. I don’t think he’s dead, but I look up to the sky when he crosses my mind because I think of Berners-Lee as nothing less than a God.
A few times during this lockdown period, I have struggled to imagine how my time would be spent without the internet. Thanks to my reliable internet connection, I am able to continue with my classes, keep up with my various work commitments, and watch YouTube vids of Chris from Bon Appetit. In fact, the internet has been an enormous shaping factor throughout my whole life. I’m a ’99 baby, so most of my earliest memories involve Dial-Up tones, playing games on Miniclip, and Club Penguin crashing when my Mum wanted to use the phone. Through tween and teen years the internet was a friend too, holding my hand as I explored saucy 1D fanfics and gateway feminism on Tumblr. Now my life, and the world at large, is even more intertwined with the internet. Both would almost certainly collapse without it. This technology of communication is irreversibly embedded into our environment, and has become a near essential tool for maintaining our relationships with each other (especially during the lockdown). People don’t solely use the internet voluntarily like we do when we share memes and stan the remaining celebs who weren’t singing Imagine. It is an unavoidable infrastructure we have to navigate to function in society.
Due to the fixed nature of the internet, and the way its spindly fingers reach into our lives, it’s essential to consider the players that have a major influence. Google, Amazon and Facebook are three particularly powerful corporations driving the direction of the internet, each having received significant amounts of criticism in the last few years.
In 2018, 20,000 Google employees from across the globe staged a walkout, demanding five changes to the working environment. Among other things, these demands included an end to pay inequality, a transparent sexual misconduct report and the creation of an Employee Representative. The issues the employees brought to light were more focused on the treatment of people within the company, but the walkout drew attention to the actions of Google in other areas. Meredith Whittaker, one of the organisers of the protest, resigned in the following year and called for more accountability and transparency from tech companies in their use of artificial intelligence. Whittaker, who founded the AI Now Institute and had been running the Open Research sector of Google, said that it was clear Google was no longer interested in her work in ethics. In an interview with Wired, she expressed concern in the way the company continued to gain “significant and largely unchecked power to impact our world.” She noted that the use of this power is one of the most urgent social and political questions of our time, with the structures of power in tech being overwhelmingly white and male. Whittaker’s concerns also align with those expressed in Safiya Noble’s Algorithms of Oppression. Noble found that the use of black-box algorithms on search engines like Google worked to further oppress those already marginalised (especially in terms of race), by supporting hegemonic and oppressive norms.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is the subject of a lot of online criticism. His net worth is nearly 120 billion dollars, and he is consistently called out for his hoarding of wealth. There is an entire Twitter account (@HasBezosDecided) dedicated to asking if Bezos has used his money to end world hunger. Sadly, it’s a speedy and simple answer: no. Amazon itself also comes under fire, for a long list of ethical issues. In terms of internet usage, it’s near impossible to be online without contributing to Jeff Bezos’ fortune. The global empire owns a massive server network, under Amazon Web Services (AWS), which is used by other major tech companies to process and store their data. If you went cold turkey, you could expect to lose Twitch, Netflix, Airbnb, LinkedIn, Facebook, BBC, Twitter, The Guardian, Spotify, Soundcloud and so many other sites that are central to internet access. Unfortunately, this means that every time you log on, you contribute to a small part of Amazon’s cheque, and Jeff Bezos’ head grows a little bit bigger.
Over the last few years, Facebook has also been under fire for breaching the privacy of users. The Cambridge Analytica scandal alone did a fantastic job in putting a big ol’ dent in Marky Mark’s billionaire tyres. Due to the insane amount of media coverage over Facebook missteps, and Zucky’s 2018 trial in front of the US Senate, there seems to be a pretty high level of distrust for Facebook in the public arena. I’ve talked plenty to my friends about having a feeling that Facebook was listening, ads popping up on my Newsfeed that feel just a little too perfect. People are aware that Facebook follows so much of your activity around the internet. This uncanny feeling of being watched seems to be a near-universal experience. Remember that FBI meme that circulated a few years ago? Instead of a man in suit, it was Robot Mark peering at us through our webcams. Man, fuck the Zuck.
It’s also worth noting that many of these corporations and social media companies engage in a much more banal violation: they collect the unlimited data from every little search we do and then sell that time and attention to advertisers. Often this means burying breaches of your privacy into user agreements, designed to be impossible to read, and secretly sucking everything we give them like a big, fat leech. We don’t always have to look so far from home to see these kinds of violations. These issues arise with the apps and programs we are most likely going to be using throughout the lockdown. Houseparty has been blowing up over the last two weeks, skyrocketing to be the most downloaded app on the same day the lockdown was announced. The app has very little friction in use, allowing people to jump in and out of conversations with a few taps. Its popularity was very quickly dulled by concerns of hacking, which Houseparty denied, posting a ‘bounty’ to Twitter for anyone who had proof of the violations.
More worryingly, Zoom may also be putting our privacy at risk. The conferencing software, which is currently being promoted by the University of Auckland for use by both students and staff, was criticised for some misleading marketing. The company claims that the app uses end-to-end encryption to keep the video and audio communication private. This method of security is understood to be one of the most private, and it usually means that the platform being used does not have the capability to decrypt data. However, the definition used by Zoom is slightly different. Zoom uses TLS encryption, which allows the app itself to access the conversations that users may believe are private. This could enable the company to hand over data to advertisers or governments. When The Intercept reached out for comment, a Zoom spokesperson said: “Currently, it is not possible to enable E2E encryption for Zoom video meetings.” This dishonesty puts the privacy of users at risk. Zoom doesn’t publish a transparency report either, so it leaves us in the dark about what is being done with our information. I guess we’ll just have to trust them when they say they won’t touch it. Seems pretty sketchy.
In an interview with Vanity Fair, Tim Berners-Lee asserted that “for people who want to make sure the Web serves humanity, we have to concern ourselves with what people are building on top of it.” He is on a mission to return the web to its democratic roots, and ward off corporate involvement. Berners-Lee is working to bring privacy and control back to the people who trust the internet with their precious information. The way that corporations have utilised the web for their own profits doesn’t align with the generous, community spirit upon which this revolutionary technology was founded. However, it’s hard to take a stand without biting the hand that feeds you, so the solutions are tough. The US government, who hold the most control over the regulation of the internet in the Western world, are consistently at the receiving end of corporate lobbyists, trying to maintain their control. The fight over Net Neutrality in 2017 showed us how important it is to re-center the powers of the internet. I guess Trump isn’t exactly interested in redistributing power. The Google Walkout proved to be somewhat effective in raising some awareness, so community action may be the way to stop the abuse of our data.
If you feel like your privacy is being stripped away, take to the streets and show the big dogs how you feel. Or you could download a VPN and delete the Facebook app from your phone. Any baby step towards giving Jeff Bezos the finger is good in my book.