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Sleepwalking Toward a Control Society? Ten Must-Know Trends



10. Challenging civil rights and democracy

The fundamental right of electronic civil rights is access to information, and free use of information with no threat to privacy. These requirements are no more fulfilled. Censorship and data surveillance have been adopted globally on the Internet. Governments increasingly introduce laws or modify existing laws to extend their power on citizens and monitor Internet users' activities and content of communications without sufficient guarantees for citizens against the abuse of these control mechanisms. (La Rue 2011)

The questions of users' rights and censorship have become more complex: it is no more a question about users' access on information. The control mechanisms on internet may involve in contents, access on contents, communications, distribution, user/distributor or infrastructure by large - and these approaches may combine methods of internet censorship and data surveillance. Availability of Internet access alone, does not guarantee that users have safe environment of communication. Even strictly guarded people in China may have access on the net and availability of local blogs and social media. However, a significant amount of information is filtered out from their availability, and they need to be very careful with their expressions to avoid becoming targets of heavy sanctions.

Overall, the control mechanisms have largely taken over the virtual space without a public discussion about their acceptability, accountability and social effects. At the same time, the broader understanding and public discussion of the dimensions of the control mechanisms and their impact lack behind. Citizens may not be aware of the existence of these control mechanisms or understand the altered definitions of misconduct or crime, since these concepts have become vague.

The developers of the ubiquitous society speak for increasing transparency. This is a fundamental misunderstanding. Ubiquitous environment has so far supported mainly such transparency which is one-directional: users become more transparent for data vendors and managers. However, this does not necessarily work vice versa. Users are more vulnerable for different kinds of misuses of their data and they become targets for tightened control mechanisms. Ubiquitous environment is about extended control and manageability of people and environment, which seems to benefit increasingly data vendors, but they leave users primarily as targets of data collection, tracking and monitoring and provide them limited views and services based on their data. (Karhula 2012b)

Transparency and privacy are among the main concerns when control mechanisms spread around. As such, privacy and transparency complement each other to support the ground rules of constitutional and democratic society. Privacy is crucial for individuals, since other civil rights like freedom of speech, opinion, religion and movement cannot become true without privacy. Informational privacy, which more accurately relates to internet communications, defines limits and protections for individual citizens against the deliberate state involvement into their communications (Bannister, 2005). On the internet, this is a limited picture, since there are also other parties, companies, organizations or individual people, who may override the borders of informational privacy for a variety of reasons. Nonetheless, informational privacy basically includes a right of self-determination and creation of borders in relation to 3rd party involvement into private information and communications.

Openness and transparency of public administration and the exercise of political power are conventionally regarded as signs of high quality of governance and democracy (Firmino, 2010). Accordingly, transparency is a principle which needs to be applied to the government and other organizations which have significant power in a society, to ensure accountability and social acceptability of their actions. This arrangement creates a balancing mechanism for the use of power and control.

The paradox of the present developments of the control mechanisms is that they tend to destroy the basis of civil rights by narrowing down privacy and declining anonymity - but also spread transparency to the wrong direction: towards citizens, when the appropriate use of transparency would be to strengthen the control of powerful actors in society. Now, the safeguards for citizens will erode, while the control mechanisms will increase non-transparency and uncontrollability of the major institutions which hold power - and indeed gives them more power and very efficient tools to manage citizens. (Karhula 2012b)

Erosion of civil rights and democratic principles is an evident consequence, since large-scale control mechanisms and their justifications have often overridden other principles. However, the status of democracy and civil rights are still valid issues of research and public discussion. What is a present state of the quality of democracy? How to find out a healthy balance of powers between citizens, governments and major stakeholders of the Internet? How civil rights could be protected?

Overall, perspectives to the users' rights on the Internet need to extend from contents and access to cover the infrastructure of communications. In this broad context users' should have a right to express versatile views and produce contents which does not reflect the mainstream values without fear. Users should gain more control over the management of their person related data to be able to check, correct and follow up how their person related data is used (e.g. European data protection law recognizes these types of requirements as data subject rights, EDPS 2012).

A closed and non-transparent setting of infrastructural censorship and data surveillance should be opened in a future. Since data collection and management becomes more and more invisible, people need facts about the context in which surveillance schemes are to be deployed (Clarke 2007). In an environment of extended data collection, users would require more protections against tracking, monitoring and use of their data without their consent. Otherwise, the setting of ubiquitous environment may produce fatal consequences for users and society.