Dreams of freedom, dreams of control

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Dreams of freedom, dreams of control

Jillian C York writes about the colonization of cyberspace– and the fight to free it.


Heklina (a drag-queen from California) protested in November 2014 against Facebook making people use ‘real names’. © Robert Galbraith/Reuters

Ten years ago, with Web 2.0, we were all dreaming of a cyberspace with no government or laws. We thought cyberspace could be equal for everyone. It would connect us with people like us around the world.

Important people in Silicon Valley were dreaming of creating large centralized platforms for everyone. Two years after Web 2.0, we had Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. The new places to meet together quickly replaced old places. They had bright colours and were 'free'.

Now they are global platforms. They are centralized, free and easy to use, and many people around the world use them to connect with friends and share information. People also use them in ways that were not planned – to talk politics, organize protests and to harass or intimidate people and get people to join causes.

These global platforms have become public. But they are still private too. People who use them have to follow the ideas of the billionaire owners and shareholders. There is no respect for law, except the laws they legally have to respect.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (article 19) says we have the right to freedom of opinion and expression, the right to get and give information and ideas ‘through any media and across any frontiers’. Government surveillance and censorship mean that this is not always true. But it is possible to challenge this through the law.

In private spaces, the powerful leaders control what happens. And these leaders are usually rich, white, American and male. They have a very big effect on the systems that they build and the rules the users should follow. Nudity is not okay, but violence is okay. There is a lot of hate speech against women, but political speech is sometimes controlled. Celebrities have special powers, with checked accounts and their own phone lines. But normal people sometimes cannot do anything when their accounts or content are taken away.

'Flagging' – when people report something wrong – can be a way of silencing speech. In theory, it lets people report problems like harassment or impersonation. But in practice, it can be used wrongly, to silence people.

Recently, some drag performers had to leave Facebook. They had a choice: give legal identification and change their accounts to their legal or birth names; or leave Facebook. Facebook says people have to use their ‘real names’. This is unusual in the social web. But it shows a bigger problem. They say they’re doing it to protect people but it is really to ‘civilize’ online spaces.

In history, Western countries said they wanted to 'civilize' other countries – but really they wanted to control them through colonization. And now, private companies say they are trying to ‘civilize’ the social web, but they are trying to control and colonize the internet. They get round the laws that allow free speech with private codes. They give internet users a choice of being on Facebook with real names or leaving. They selling the idea of ‘free’ spaces – but they take private data.

The real choices now for people who want really free online spaces are to act so the big powerful corporations hear our voices; to build new spaces that are not centralized and are really open; and to continue to fight to make sure that all the internet remains the space for free expression that we dreamed of.

So we must see this movement from government to corporate regulation and we must do something about it. Corporate online spaces try hard to hide their censorship. They use transparency so say that governments are the only ones who want to control what we say. When we see this, we will be able to fight against these corporate powers and demand better… or we can make the choice to walk away.

Jillian C York is the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s director for International Freedom of expression at jilliancyork.com

NOW READ THE ORIGINAL: http://newint.org/features/2015/01/01/colonization-internet/ (This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed).