Facebook and the closing of the digital mind

While Governments can use the force of law to stifle expression on the Internet, they are far from the only threat to free speech. Tim Berners-Lee, one of the original creators of the World Wide Web, highlights the increasing use of closed Internet architecture, spearheaded by companies like Facebook and Apple whose services are increasingly ‘walled-off’ from the rest of the Web.

There are two key dangers with these developments. The primary threat is to privacy. Unlike individuals who host their own web content, many web users now hand over personal information to entities like Facebook, at which point it ceases to be under their control. It might now be displayed without their explicit permission, and it will certainly be used behind the scenes for whatever purpose the corporation deems legal and commercially viable (mercifully, this has mostly involved merely targeted advertising up till now).

Personal information and friend networks might be edited or deleted without warning or due process. Users essentially interact with each other only so long as it is permitted by the arbitrary will of the network controller, rather than through open architecture that allows for communication to be negotiated between equals.

This creates the opportunity for the second major threat: censorship. Once your connections are reliant on the permission of an unaccountable entity, then whatever material you wish to share can be censored at will. Sharing any information that the network controller does not wish to be shared or finds offensive (whether based on the personal taste of the site’s owner, or the collective decision of its user-base), could lead to your expression being deleted and you being barred from the network – a form of digital ostracism.

Adriana Lukas, at an Oxford Libertarian Society discussion a few months ago, discussed some of the solutions also mentioned by Berners-Lee in a little more detail. She argues that these hierarchically conceived walled citadels are unnecessary. All their features can be reproduced without handing control over what you can access to someone else. They can be combated through the personal choice not to participate in them. A video of her talk is below:

Adriana Lukas – “Rescuing Privacy from the Internet” from oxford libertarian on Vimeo.