Governments and Big Tech are Destroying the Internet. Why You Should Care.

Image: Courtesy Logan Moncrief

On August 16, 2018, after unsuccessfully dodging the question for weeks, Google CEO Gundar Pichai and Co-Founder Sergey Brin finally admitted that Google is working on a censored search platform for the People’s Republic of China in an all-hands meeting with Google employees. The admission was likely damage control after a scathing report by The Intercept based on leaked documents nearly two weeks prior:

The Orwellian project has been code-named Dragonfly and will automatically censor any information the Chinese government deems impermissible. Employees were furious with the project’s secrecy and have circulated a letter demanding an “ethics review structure” to prevent secret projects like this from starting up in the future.

Dragonfly marks Google’s potential return to the Chinese market since leaving in 2010 under CEO Eric Schmidt’s leadership. At the time, Google claimed concerns over censorship and hacked gmail accounts led to the pullout. Many analysts contend that the reason for Google’s departure was based less on concerns for internet freedoms and more on the companies inability to gain market share over Chinese search powerhouse Baidu.

In any case, one can argue that significant damage has already been done to the Google brand, with many human rights groups as well as a bipartisan group of six United States Senators expressing their displeasure with the business venture. With Dragonfly, we see what appears to be continued attempts by China to further censor its citizens access to content, enabled by Google — who stands to make great profits if it can compete in the Chinese market.

On the heels of the Dragonfly scandal, and in an incredibly ironic twist, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki expressed her concern for content creators after the European Union’s passing of articles 11 and 13:

The articles essentially place the responsibility of “upload filtering” on search providers like Google, with hefty fines levied for violations. Some have expressed concern that article 13, nicknamed the “meme ban” will stifle free speech by forcing automatic filtering of content without allowing for protected speech like parody and sociopolitical satire.

Additionally, article 11 establishes a “link tax” on news aggregator sites like Google News for linking to copyrighted content. Wojcicki said that “article 13 threatens hundreds of thousands of jobs”. What Wojcicki failed to mention was that added infrastructure and fines from the EU will likely lead to major costs for the search giant and other properties like YouTube. With articles 11 and 13 we see concerted efforts by the EU to profit from censorship, again — enabled by Google.

Censorship is on the rise in the EU and of great concern to many. One need look no further than the absurd case of YouTuber Mark Meechan:

This type of injustice is expected in places like the People’s Republic of China, but in Scotland? Many fear that articles 11 and 13 are just the tip of the iceberg, and the EU will continue with more power grabbing, eventually resulting in a sanitized version of the internet we once knew, where your every tweet is monitored by the police and filtered for “wrong think”.

Big Tech giant Facebook has had it’s fair share of scandal as well, admitting that a recent data breach, as a result of phishing attacks, involved over twenty nine million accounts. According to Reuters: “The attackers took profile details such as birth dates, employers, education history, religious preference, types of devices used, pages followed and recent searches and location check-ins from 14 million users. Lawmakers and investors have grown more concerned that Facebook is not doing enough to safeguard data.”

Where do we go from here? Some in congress have suggested an Internet Bill of Rights. Speaking about customer data breaches from Facebook and other tech companies, U.S. Congressperson Ro Khanna (D — Ca.) said: “For the first time in this last year or two we’re having to question a sense of tech Utopianism and realize that tech is amoral — that it can be used for extraordinary means, but it also can be exploited. We need to figure out, what do our rights and responsibilities look like online. Citizens need to be protected not just from government overreach, but from the overreach of corporate actors.”

Indeed, maybe it is time we seriously consider legislation to prevent censorship and misuse of data by government and corporate powers in the internet age. In the 21st Century, the internet has effectively become our public square. If we intend on using it well into the future, we will need to work together to make sure the law provides adequate protections for free speech for everyone and to demand companies operate ethically and refrain from doing business in parts of the world where human rights are not respected. If we don’t do something soon, things will only get worse.