Ahmad Saeid: We can’t let the Internet become as undemocratic as television

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      Last last month, we witnessed a stronghold of the virtual world invaded and corrupted by corporations. After it helped fuel the Arab spring and the Occupy movements around the world, Twitter is now domesticated. The popular social media website announced that it holds the ability to filter messages in any country, if the government of that country deems the content of a tweet illegal. This move renders this tool that was used in many revolutions useless. It simply means that Twitter, as a tool for change, has been taken from us, the people. We can no longer rely on it to facilitate mass movements outside of the influence of governments or corporations.

      The worrying thing is that Twitter is not the only one that is changing the rules. At the same time, Google is revising all of its privacy policies and uniting them into one. Facebook, of course, is doing its usual overhaul that will generate new loopholes to invade people’s privacy.

      If I might elaborate on this one, I personally believe that Facebook is the pimp of online privacy violations. Think about it—how many times have you got those invites from your friends to play a game, to access certain information, or even to read an article? Some of those applications ask for permission to access your information anytime they want, even if you are not currently using that application, and for no reasonable explanation.

      Of course one needs to be naive to assume that companies and government agencies will not be using these loopholes. As it stands now, anyone can create software that provides a certain service to Facebook users in exchange for carte blanche to access their information anytime! In other words, Facebook is facilitating the violation of Internet users’ privacy for everyone.

      Once people start depending on something, it should no longer be driven by profit, otherwise the inevitable result will be monopoly and control.

      Be it Twitter, Facebook, or Google, people must have the alternative in order to have a choice, otherwise the Internet will become as undemocratic as television. At the age where people are mainly connecting with each other online, we cannot allow corporations, or governments, to take control of that connection. Internet is an immensely powerful tool. If it is going to turn into another form of mass control like television, then we will end up in a very bad situation. We will be risking having many more generations of brainwashed people, who are programmed to consume and obey.

      Some western governments have noticed the potential for change that the Internet holds, and are quietly and slowly squeezing down on it. SOPA and PIPA in the U.S., and the “lawful access” bill that is being pushed in Canada are examples of how serious the situation is.

      If Internet users are not ready to stop taking the freedom it provides for granted, they are in for a rough ride. We need to know that there is no free land, physical or virtual, that can last without protection. We need to be willing to do what it takes to stop governments from expanding their influence over the Internet.

      At the same time, we need to realize that our addiction to certain websites empowers them and weakens us. We need to stand up against corporations that seek to gain a monopoly over certain aspects of the Internet, and be prepared to take our “virtual business” somewhere else if we cannot get the level of privacy that we deserve.

      If we don’t act responsibly, we will end up in a situation where we would’ve lost the biggest and most democratic tool humanity have ever produced.

      What Internet users really need now is a safety net, a nonprofit organization that will work as a watchdog for any form of abusive malpractice by influential figures in the virtual world. One of the duties of this organization would be to take the responsibility of monitoring and ranking websites according to their user friendliness. It should keep track of the changes in user agreements, and warn consumers of changes that are threatening to violate their privacy.

      Within the same organization, there should be another arm that creates ethical alternatives for users who are not willing to take the constant erosion of their privacy by mega online corporations. For example, if Twitter decides to take an ethical plunge and disregard the right of its users to voice out their message, this authority should provide an alternative website that people can use instead of Twitter, and it should be not for profit. If there will be ability to make profit it should be to used to self-sustain the website and the organization, and the rest should go to increasing Internet penetration in third world countries.

      This authority should be truly democratic, and have separate monitoring and implementing authorities to guarantee impartiality. Members should be elected democratically by Internet users, and there should be no vetoes.

      This way we can guarantee that we have “online governance” that represents us as humans.

      Keep the virtual land free. We cannot afford to lose it.

      Ahmad Saeid is a blogger, journalist, photographer, and aspiring filmmaker who moved to Vancouver from Kuwait. He blogs at The Orient.