Is the Internet truly 'democratic'?



Each discovery and innovation comes at a cost. The gift that Tim Berners-Lee gave the world in 1990 is no exception. While, the World Wide Web has revolutionised the very ways the global economy, various national governments and ordinary individuals function, the price tag it bears is significant. What are the focal points of dispute that I’m referring to here? Two questions. Are acts of espionage over the Internet healthy? Is surveillance over the web a necessary component of some greater good for a society, one that claims to be democratic? As per a 2013 report published in Web Index (the annual journal of the World Wide Web Consortium), the surge of online censorship and surveillance is a potential threat to the very “future of democracy”.

That incidences related to spying and surveillance (on the web) are causing tides that the Internet was not originally expected to influence is no surprise. The Internet threw open an age of information, where flow of information was expected to occur without bottlenecks or barricades – between individuals, groups, societies, nations, et cetera – the very prerequisite for democracy. It is not difficult to understand that this freedom of thought-and-information sharing is the quickest way to empowering commoners and allowing them to choose what’s best for their own future. But as I said before, no innovation is unconditional. The leakage of classified documents in the first half of this year by a former CIA employee and US National Security Agency contractor (Edward Snowden) shocked the world. It proved the existence of the National Security Agency’s (NSA) surveillance programs and how the US agency and its counterparts like the British GCHQ, Israel’s ISNU and Norway’s NIS – in their efforts to keep a close eye on all forms of communication between and within foreign terrorist groups – were accessing vast amounts of public user data from American and non-American Internet companies (including Google, Facebook, Yahoo!, Microsoft, Skype, etc.), without the knowledge of the users. Invasion of privacy is what these surveillance programs sans court warrants – like PRISM, XKeyscore, Tempora and many others – would be termed. And think of the count of such invasions – here a fact to get you imagining – as per a certain British media outfit, in March 2013 alone, NSA collected 97 billion pieces of information from web networks around the world, of which 3 billion came from American networks. If we were to talk about each Internet-using Earthling being treated at-par, that would amount to 39 pieces of information (including voice communication and chats over the web) being recorded per person during the month of March 2013 alone – for the months of 2013, 429 facts about “YOU”. [Just wondering – is there a chance that your banking password could be one in that bunch?]

The question arises – has the Internet become a medium where freedom, privacy and democracy are just words you can type-in and not really experience? “We hack everyone, everywhere… The NSA has built an infrastructure that allows it to intercept almost everything. With this capability, the vast majority of human communications are automatically ingested without targeting. If I wanted to see your emails or your wife’s phone, all I have to do is use intercepts. I can get your emails, passwords, phone records, credit cards… I do not want to live in a world where everything I do and say is recorded. That is not something I am willing to support or live under,” whistle-blower Snowden told a British media outfit in Hong Kong in recent months. Think he was lying or unsure? How much more truthful can a person get, one who is determined to wage war against the biggest superpower in the world (and one who knows that “Nothing good” will happen to him once the American and British and other governments get after him)? Again the question is – how much privacy can you disrespect in the name of national security?

The Internet has contributed much to human knowledge and ease of living, and continues to do so. Search engines, Internet sites, social networks have changed lives around the world. In fact, the very idea of globalisation has become more meaningful because of the rise of the Internet. Apart from bringing about a sea change in human lifestyle, democratic movements like the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street were largely engineered by social networking sites. More than 1.5 billion of people around the world have an account on these sites and more than 2.5 billion have access to the magic wand called the www. And going by this large number, restrictions and some form of legal control should exist on the Internet. Mind you – legal. I am not someone who is party to the fact that disrespectful individuals (with a clear mistaken idea about freedom of speech) and terrorists should be allowed to “freely” saunter back and forth and have a party over the Internet, irrespective of what their motives are. Those with ulterior motives, whether it be terrorism or even a case of Internet hooliganism (read the cover story of TSI, issue dated May 29, 2013), should be stopped before they think of spitting venom on the web. The Internet is not a place where you can go dirty dancing as you desire. I quote from the cover story I just mentioned, “Take a quick ‘surf’ across various pages of the Internet and it would not be hard for one to realise that every fourth or fifth page is filled up with some or the other pejoratively aberrant content against respectable individuals and companies posted by untraceable, incognito and spiteful writers. The net is now so completely full of criminally damnable statements that one starts wondering why the authorities haven’t woken up to act on this issue with the greatest speed. Internet hooliganism, as I describe it, is the most contemptible character of the modern technology era... Question is, why is all this not ‘controllable’?”

But democracy and individual privacy should not be murdered in the name of ‘control’. Unconstitutional acts such as those undertaken by NSA and its allies should not become an alternative for legal methods to monitor Internet activity. Invasion of privacy is no solution to making the world a safer place. Putting filters in place, making ISPs and Internet companies 100% responsible and answerable, and even holding individuals accountable for all wrongdoings on the web is the way to go about monitoring anything over the Internet for national governments and security agencies.

I am not saying that an individual’s or a corporation’s interests should be given priority over the interests of a State. But to put to risk the very freedom of democracy using 9/11 as a lame excuse should not be an easy substitute for effortless, automatic tapping of private information and communication! While speaking to the press about encroachment on the privacy of individuals by governments, a year back, Tim Berners-Lee (founder of the World Wide Web), told media that, “The idea that we should routinely record information about people is obviously very dangerous. It means that there will be information around which could be stolen, which can be acquired through corrupt officials or corrupt operators, and [could be] used, for example, to blackmail people in the government or people in the military. We open ourselves out, if we store this information, to it being abused.”

The discussion about surveillance and censorship on the Internet will only balloon in the days to come. There could be an incentive for people to share their information in future, or some reasonable law could take shape that could empower the government to question those in doubt without having to run around the court for ever. Not to say that terrorists aren’t aware that surveillance is in progress – Snowden or not, NSA or not. They know well that counties like Iran, Pakistan, Jordan, Egypt and India aren’t really Internet havens for their kind. So the question is not how effective these surveillance tactics have been in terrorising the terrorists. It’s the regular Tom who has seen his online insecurity grow over the months.

At present, the bigger question is – what is being done to the volumes of personal data collected? And how are the truckloads of information collected about individuals and corporations and nations around the world being used or abused? If this uncontrollable attack on privacy continues, soon it will not remain a question of ethics or democracy. We’ll be talking survival instead.