Digital feudalism: What are your rights in Facebookistan, Googledom, Amazonia, and Appleland?

// “Winter is Coming” at CGCS, as Rebecca MacKinnon of Global Voices Online, author of 2012′s Consent of the Networked, responds to a recent Economist article on regulating the collection of users’ personal data online. To draw more attention to the issue, MacKinnon, The Center for Global Communication Studies at the The Annenberg School for Communication, and other academic partners will launch new research into the privacy and transparency implications of user data collection across various ICT platforms.

I was feeling guilty about the time I’ve spent reading George R.R. Martin’s fantasy novels – until I read this week’s Economist. A survey piece, “Technology Giants at War” likens the increasingly fierce competition between Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon to a “The Game of Thrones” – the first novel in a still-unfinished epic series about the power struggles and civil wars among feudal lords battling for sovereignty over a fictional continent called Westeros.  The battle of “the big four,” the magazine’s editors argue, “will have the greatest impact in future on the way people find information, consume content and purchase all kinds of stuff, and on who takes their money in return.”

The piece was published as Google is under investigation for breach of anti-trust laws by regulators in Europe and the United States. The European Commission in Brussels and the Federal Trade Commission in Washington DC are both examining charges that the Internet giant abused its dominance in the search engine market to manipulate search results in favor of its own products and services, at the expense of its rivals. The Economist  – which tends to take free-market stances – cautions against heavy-handed government action against Google, arguing that market forces will ultimately keep Google’s power in check:

The fact that people have flocked to big web firms’ platforms suggests that consumers are perfectly willing to trade some openness for convenience and ease-of-use. And if they do want to change providers, the cost of doing so has fallen dramatically in the broadband era.

But as the big Internet companies battle for market dominance, just as the feudal houses of Stark, Lannister, and Greyjoy battled for control over the lands and “smallfolk” of Westeros, what about the human collateral damage? Digital feudalism on its own – even in an atmosphere of fierce competition – does not protect individuals’ rights and liberties any more than feudal lords guaranteed their serfs’ (or even nobles’) rights and liberties.

Security expert Bruce Schneier has a great blog post, “Feudal Security” this week (a version of which was published in WIRED) about the security and privacy implications of Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon acting like feudal empires. He is concerned not only about the threats to our privacy from companies wanting to track our consumer behavior or manipulating what we can see and do for commercial reasons. He is also concerned about how those companies can serve as a conduit for government censorship and surveillance.

Ultimately, they will always act in their own self-interest, as companies do when they mine our data in order to sell more advertising and make greater profits. These companies own us, so they can sell us off — again, like serfs — to rival lords…or turn us in to the authorities

Users may voluntarily relinquish control of their information for the sake of convenience as the Economist argues, but Schneier insists that the companies are nonetheless failing to protect our rights – and that this status quo in our digital lives is no more acceptable than feudalism was an acceptable governance model for human society:

… We give companies our data and trust them with our security, but we receive very few assurances of protection in return, and those companies have very few restrictions on what they can do.

This needs to change. There should be limitations on what cloud vendors can do with our data; rights, like the requirement that they delete our data when we want them to; and liabilities when vendors mishandle our information.

Schneier laments that government has “largely abdicated its role in cyberspace.” He calls on national and international governments “to create the regulatory environments that protect us.” The problem, however, is that many government regulations being passed by parliaments around the these days are subjecting citizens to ever more pervasive censorship and increasingly unaccountable surveillance.

Almost every week, the Global Voices Netizen Report includes at least one bill or law somewhere in the world – often in democracies – requiring companies to hand over user information about people engaging in vaguely defined “offensive” online speech, or to delete content with few if any checks against political abuse and manipulation. In the United States, free speech and civil liberties groups from across the political spectrum have been fighting for years to change the law so that U.S. government investigators must to obtain a warrant to access stored email (a warrant has always been required to read our paper documents or written letters). They are now opposed by law enforcement agencies who are currently insisting that wireless companies be required to retain all of our cell phone text messages for two years just in case they are needed for some reason.

Certainly, citizens of democracies should fight hard against bad laws and push elected representatives to pass good ones which protect our rights to digital privacy and free expression. But politics, law and regulation are not the only way to constrain corporate abuses of digital power. For the past five years I have been involved with the Global Network Initiative (GNI) whose website states the problem clearly:

All over the world – from the Americas to Europe to the Middle East to Africa and Asia – companies in the Information & Communications Technology (ICT) sector face increasing government pressure to comply with domestic laws and policies in ways that may conflict with the internationally recognized human rights of freedom of expression and privacy.

The GNI asks member companies to commit to core principles on free expression and privacy, then undergo an independent assessment process to ensure that they are in fact making meaningful efforts uphold those principles. The organization is modeled on a number of initiatives working with various types of companies to address human rights problems like labor abuses, violence against local populations by private security companies, or the presence of conflict minerals in product supply chains  – which help to finance murderous regimes. Some of these initiatives have succeeded in bringing about real change in corporate practices. I wrote about why it is in companies’ long-term commercial interests to respect and protect human rights – and why it is in technology companies’ interest to respect and protect our specific rights to free expression and privacy in Chapter Eleven of my book, Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom.

Unfortunately, however, few companies have joined the GNI so far. This is in large part because most companies are not under enough pressure – from consumers, investors, or regulators – to change their behavior. Over the past several decades companies have succumbed to pressure and reasoned arguments from a combination of consumers, investors, and regulators to change environmental, labor, and other practices. While they are far from perfect, the policies and practices of major multinationals on both labor and environmental issues are clearly better than they were in the 1950s and 60s. This change would not have been possible without a large body of credible, comparative, research data.

Right now, there is not enough thorough, comparative, publicly available information about different technology companies’ policies and practices on free expression and privacy to bring about the same sort of behavioral changes we saw with environment and labor.

To address this problem,  I will start working on a new inter-disciplinary project in 2013 at Penn called “New Technology, Transparency and Human Rights” with a group of faculty and students from Annenberg and CGCS, the Wharton Business School, the Law School, Engineering and Arts and Sciences and others at the university that are interested. We will spend much of the year working to develop a research methodology for ranking Internet and telecommunications companies on free expression and privacy criteria.

Scholarship at Penn can help to measure and make fully transparent the practices of Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, and many other Internet and telecommunications companies and hold them accountable to core human rights, standards of free expression and privacy as these digital giants compete for global dominance.  If you are interested in being part of the project or want to learn more, please contact the Center for Global Communication Studies.

Featured Photo Credit: AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike Some rights reserved by Sergey Melkonov

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