Be Democracy

The Be Democracy exhibit Twitter installation.
The Be Democracy exhibit at the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo.
The exhibit will feature tweets curated by me this week.

I’m the guest editor for the Nobel Peace Center’s Be Democracy exhibit this week. Follow along at @BeDemocracy.

“What do the PM’s selfie, digital surveillance, checking Facebook before you get out of bed, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo and the Arab Spring all have in common?”

That’s how the Nobel Peace Center’s latest exhibition, Be Democracy, introduces itself. The exhibit, which started on May 15th and runs alongside the permanent Peace Prize exhibit, examines the relationship between social media and democracy.

The rotation began on 26 May, with The Norwegian Press Association. Followed by Amnesty Int. Norway (Amnesty is also a Peace Prize laureate, 1977). And I’m honoured to be following in their footsteps as the first non-organisational curator, and the first to address issues concerning big data, privacy, and independent technology.

I inherit the Twitter feed from last week’s curator, The Oslo Center for Peace and Human Rights, at 9AM on Monday.

I will stive to provide a critical look at social media and, more specifically, the business model of social media: corporate surveillance.

Thanks to the revelations last Summer by whistleblower Edward Snowden, many of us are aware of the existence of dragnet government surveillance. And many of us are aware of the negative impact this has for our privacy, civil liberties, fundamental freedoms, and our democracy. In fact, we get told by companies like Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo!, and Twitter that governments spying on us is a bad thing and that we must reform government surveillance. Fewer of us are aware, however, that these very same companies make their money by spying on us and profiling us. Furthermore, it is the centralised silos of intelligence about us which they have amassed that makes it trivial and cost-effective for governments to spy on us en masse.

Kids give the thumbs up to tweets at the Be Democracy exhibit.
I like this tweet.
Kids giving the tweets they like a literal thumbs up.

Fewer of us are aware of dragnet corporate surveillance, in part, because these corporations spend inordinate amounts of resources on public relations and on lobbying governments and institutions like the EU and the EC. They are clever enough to practice the age-old art of misdirection by siding with efforts to curb government surveillance in hopes that we will never ask: ‘but why is it ok for you to spy on me?’ Their nightmare scenario is that we should ask our democratically-elected governments to regulate them. When I spoke to Eric Schmidt last year in London, he told me that he spends every day ‘fighting regulation’ and that it could ‘kill Google’. So, if we are (rightly) calling on the powers-that-be to reform government surveillance, maybe we should also be calling on them to reform corporate surveillance.

The business model of corporate surveillance is the business model of spying on you and profiling you for financial gain. It goes hand in hand with the offer of ‘free’ services and subsidized products. It is the business model of some of the largest venture-capital-subsidised transnational technology companies in the world, including such household names like Google, Facebook, and Yahoo!. In fact, it is so widespread that we can consider it to be a monopoly on the Internet today. It is a dangerous, short-sighted business model that erodes our privacy and treats people as walking bags of mostly data; as a resource to be mined and exploited.

And if we complain, we are told by these corporations that their spying is not a problem because we have the choice not to use their products. But do we, really? The technologies and networks created by these companies are increasingly becoming essential to participation in modern life. They are heralded as platforms that allow individuals to communicate on a global scale in a manner hitherto unseen in human history. And yet, the price, we are told, is that we must forego our privacy.

These spaces, which we so readily think of as public spheres, are really private property. And in these private spaces, the meaning of privacy itself has been distorted. Where as once privacy meant ‘for you alone’, now it means ‘just between you and Facebook’ or ‘just between you and Google’. In other words, when using the tools and services provided by companies like Google and Facebook, we do not have privacy. Privacy truly is dead — but only within the confines of these corporate spaces.

What is most alarming is that these tools and services, today, are essential to participation in modern life. And, because they share a common business model, we are left with the illusion of choice. We are left without any true alternatives. If we stop using Google and start using Yahoo! we are still being spied on. It is just a different venture-capital-subsidised-and-publicly-traded-transnational corporation with the same business model doing the spying. We quickly find ourselves in a spot where the actual choice we are being given is this: either use our products and be profiled or disconnect yourself from modern life. Needless to say, this is not an acceptable state of affairs.

I will be using my week at guest editor of the Nobel Peace Center’s Be Democracy exhibit to ask what ramifications this status quo has for the future of our privacy and, therefore, for the future of our civil liberties, human rights, and democracy.

I will also be outlining a different possible future, a path away from this quagmire, built using alternative independent technologies.

Join me, starting Monday morning at 9AM, on the @BeDemocracy twitter feed.

Photos courtesy Johannes Granseth / Nobel Peace Center.