The Free Internet We Want (2): How Internet centralization affects us

The Free Internet We Want, is a series of research papers:

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Why should we care if the Internet, as we deal with it on daily basis, is a highly centralized network, so that every one of our main activities on it always passes through one application or website or a very limited number of them? In fact, centralized networks have their own issues stemming directly from their nature, specifically having a limited number of central nodes and the concentration of data. But there are also additional issues concerning phenomena produced by Internet centralization and the power it offers to companies owning the websites and applications over shaping our daily experience and affecting the practice of our basic rights and freedoms.

Data security and privacy

Central websites, we deal with daily, keep a huge amount of personal data and the contents we add, store, or share with other for work, entertainment, or socializing purposes. What we mean by data security includes guaranteeing that these data and contents are not vulnerable to being lost, corrupted, or leaked, or otherwise becoming inaccessible for their owners, either temporarily or permanently. While we mean by the right to privacy, guaranteeing that no individual or entity can have access to such data without explicit or implicit permission of their owner.

Centralization means that there is one point through which all communication processes among all the network nodes go through. In case the center stopped working, for any reason, the whole network stops working. This does happen in actual reality when one of the central websites stops working. The more dependent we get on the services of websites like Facebook and Google, the more severe is the chaos and larger are the effects caused by any of them stopping to work, even for a very short time. Depending on the type of malfunction, its effects may be limited to barring us from accessing our data and personal contents for some time. In other cases that damage might be great if access to such data is crucial for work or personal purposes. On the other side, a malfunction might has more permanent effects if it led to lose or corruption of data or contents in a way that limits their usage or render them useless for the purpose they were intended for.

The concentration of a large amount of our important data in one place makes them more vulnerable to different dangers, especially as we have no control over their storage or protection procedures. Most of the time we don’t even know anything about these procedures. Companies managing these websites are not very transparent when it comes to such details. Most companies don’t offer much in the way of guaranteeing the safety of data. Most user agreement, that almost nobody care to read, contain disclaimer clauses concerning user data protection.

The centralization of websites and applications also means the centralization of their code-bases, which consist in the basic code libraries that applications depend on. Any security breaches in these code-bases allow whoever manage to exploit them to hack into protected data of millions of users in one shot. Once again, leaks of personal data, including credit cards numbers, passwords, etc. are usual occurrences with big websites, and millions of people have already been harmed by them. Code-base centralization, i.e. dependence of a large number of applications on one code-base, also means that spying and surveillance applications that might be used by dictatorial regimes for tracking dissidents can concentrate efforts on breaking less code to reach a large number of users more easily. There are of course many issues that an application or a website can be subject to, but centralization means that one issue will cause more damage for more people.

Moderating contents and freedom of expression

Most central websites allow us to add our own contents to reach out to others, whether they were our friends, acquaintance, public followers. In all cases, owner companies enforce sets of rules for the contents allowed for publishing. While such rules differ from one company to the other, what always motivate them is the priority of making profits, which makes expanding users base and lowering moderation costs paramount. Hence, companies are interested in ensuring that the contents published through their websites are suitable for the prevailing tastes, meaning that their rules are more restrictive for free expression than allowed by rights rules regulated by human rights covenants and agreements.

Seeking to lower the costs of content moderation, companies tend to use algorithms for monitoring contents so as to depend less on human elements. While algorithms get more complex, they are still considerably lacking in understanding the nature of the contents either they were readable, visual, or audio etc. They can’t comprehend different meanings based on the different and complex levels of the context. This leads all the time to wrongly marking some content as violating a rule or another, which means that besides enforcing rules which are not legally justified, content moderation tools very often apply these rules in the wrong way. The user is left with the burden of appealing for lifting the incurred measures, ranging from removing the content to suspension of user account, up to permanent removal of the account.

Such policies, besides violating users’ right to free expression, tend to enforce prevalent and traditional patterns for categorizing what is acceptable or not either morally, religiously, or socially in different cultures, which means that virtual public space is becoming more conservative and hostile toward difference, innovation, and evolution. In many cases this happens on the expense of ethnic, religious and sexual minorities, and solidarity campaigns with vulnerable groups for different reasons and in different contexts. In conclusion, these policies led by the priority of profits produce the opposite effect to the open and emancipatory one that many wished the Internet would produce.

Limited access to information

Internet centralization however doesn’t only mean more damages of malfunction, leaks, and security breaches, there is also the fact that our daily activities on the network are subject to the control of a limited number of entities. These entities are big tech companies that own and manage central websites and applications used by millions on daily basis. Companies like Facebook, Alphabet (Google’s mother company), Apple, and Amazon, have great power over shaping our daily experience through their policies for managing websites and applications, through which many people practice their daily activities. Our great dependence on a limited number of websites and applications for communicating with others, exchanging information, performing different work tasks, and getting entertainment materials, makes the way we practice such activities subject to the decisions of a limited number of people responsible for setting the policies of these websites and applications. The latest examples of the intervention of Facebook and Twitter managements in monitoring the contents added by the users of their social media platforms, point out clearly how much power these companies have over shaping the conscious of millions of people through blocking specific contents or promoting in different ways other contents.

It can be said that whoever wants to access any information blocked by one platform, can search for them on his/her own, regardless of the fact that the great majority will have one website to do the search, the problem is that nobody will search for something he/she never heard of. The centralization of such websites like Facebook, and Twitter leads to that most people will not even hear of anything that is not available through these websites be it news or information. The problem is not the information you can or can’t reach. We all differ in how much we are keen on searching for reliable information about any topic, but the spread of specific information rather than the alternative leaves a mark on all of our lives. The obvious example is how widespread are the reliable sources of information about coronavirus, and how this affected people’s observance of immunity measures or receiving vaccines. There is also the phenomenon of spreading propaganda disinformation during elections campaigns, forming an idea of some ruling regime, or knowing facts about human rights state in some countries. Centralization allows many entities to work on directing points of view for more people in a way compatible with their interests, on the other hand, it allows companies owning websites and applications to interfere using policies that prevent or accommodate such propaganda, or in any case, such policies reflect the company’s management views about this or that issue. Companies use titles like “fighting fake news”, but under such titles, some disinformation about coronavirus might be blocked, while true information about vicious atrocities committed by the Israeli occupation in Palestine will also be blocked. The problem here is that judging some information to be true or false is not anybody’s to make for him/herself, it is rather decided by the management of some company that can enforce its view through blocking or allowing the contents.

Isolation and normalization

Entering the world of the Internet a few years ago used to promise us with going beyond different borders prohibiting free communication among people. It also used to promise us the opportunity to know more about cultural and social worlds different from those we grew up being familiar with. In our imagination, the network was our gate to a world in which people come closer to each other, learn to respect differences, and open their minds and hearts to spaces of knowledge wider than those they used to. The developers of algorithms for websites and applications however had a different view, dictated by companies’ policies seeking more profits, the algorithms decide what information or news that can pass, and who we may meet based on a profile they form of us through different data, including countries of origin and residence, gender, age group, education level, interests, and dozens of other categories.

There is almost no activity you can practice on the net through any of the central websites and applications that is not affected in a way or another by the profile formed for you by this website. The result is that users of such websites tend to be more and more isolated from whatever is different from who and what they are supposed to be. They are exposed to news and information related to their countries, their work field, their previous interests, and things people in their circle have shown interest in. Websites recommend persons to add to friend lists, professional networks, or else based on those one already knows in his/her close circles. The result is that most users continue being limited to a small circle in which their isolation, from whatever is outside it, is reinforced with time. Many research of social media networks, in particular, have shown that their users tend to consolidate believes they already have while being more alienated from anything different from them, filtering people they know accordingly.

Lack of competition and killing innovation

The management of big tech companies is not democratic or elected by anybody, but they have the power to decide policies that affect our practice of daily activities, and how much we enjoy our rights and freedoms especially the rights to privacy and free speech. In a non-virtual world, such influence over practicing such rights should be through laws legislated by elected authority, but in the virtual public space, it doesn’t require more than having a suitable position in a company’s management or monitoring board created by the same company that chooses its members as it wishes. Management of big tech companies today holds as much influence over billions of people as no government, whether elected or not, has ever had through history.

These companies didn’t acquire their power by force or conviction, but by selling a free service, encouraging some sort of addiction to this service. The problem here is that centralization stemming from having the majority of some service users, is itself what makes new users more attracted to the website or application, and it is also why it is so difficult for a current user to choose an alternative website. This phenomenon makes Internet service closed in face of competition, which allows big companies to have more freedom in choosing their policies, as the majority of the users of their services are not really free to choose. We go where we can communicate with members of our families, friends, and coworkers, use the work related applications that allow us to exchange outputs and collaborate with our colleagues and clients, use the browser most of the websites we need are compatible with, and use the search engine that it is related to the browser being owned by the same company. There is no real competition in such market.

The closed market doesn’t only harm small startup companies, it also harms us as users of Internet services. It means slowing the evolution of these services using new innovations beyond the limits decided by code-bases used by big companies. Most of the revolutionary leaps of Internet applications came from building new code-bases from the ground-up, but big companies rarely venture into building new code-bases, and even when they open their source code for programmers, they actually form dependencies on their code-bases, as most of these programmers will opt to develop their products based on code-bases that allow more users to choose them. Centralization here kills creativity or sets its limits. In other words, Internet centralization is not only what we see and deal with daily, it expands to infrastructure so that we can’s expect new breakthroughs beyond the familiar. In particular, we can’t expect something new that conflicts with big companies’ monopoly of the market. Such new thing won’t have a chance to come out, or will disappear quickly or in case it had some success, will be acquired by the same big companies, and they always have enough money to do so due to the huge profits they make, again due to centralization.