Sleepwalking Toward a Control Society? Ten Must-Know Trends


Control over Internet contents and communications has extended dramatically, since the beginning of 2000s and it is reflected in technologies, laws and social practices.
The combined effect of these developments is that they have established conditions of large-scale control mechanisms, their juridical justifications and renewed interpretations of civil rights.

Internet censorship and data surveillance may not always produce direct restrictions, but their possible further multipurpose uses of data poses threat for users also in western democracies. In conditions of extensive data collection people are practically pressured into conformity, if they want to protect their benefits and future life opportunities in conditions. In a long run and if these practices become stricter, they may freeze public discussion and develop insecurity and fear in communications. New control mechanisms will threaten the benefits of any minorities or individuals or groups with deviant opinions or life styles in a society. And fundamentally, they concern quality of management and democracy. (Etzioni 2012, Karhula 2012b)

Serious consequences of the opposite direction of the development have been witnessed in totalitarian countries, in which citizens may become heavily sanctioned for any opposing expressions (La Rue 2011). In this respect, the same practices, like forced user identification and data surveillance, which may be justified in certain connections in western democracies, turn life threatening in societies, where the political atmosphere is different.

These same consequences may threaten the relationship between media and citizens, since there are signs of policies, which will threaten the balance of power between citizens and organizations with major power. E.g. protection of sources and users' anonymity in communications within the services of media have been questioned. Journalists are among the target groups of stricter surveillance even in European countries (Privacy International 2011b). Also the tightening competition within media industry inhibits companies to monitoring of their users' communications more thoroughly, which again sets users as targets of data surveillance (Turow 2011).

Protection of sources does not concern only media, but it supports the structures of democracy in society. Whistle-blowing is increasingly recognized as an early warning system and an effective tool for fighting corruption, fraud and mismanagement in society by revealing negligence or wrongdoing. The importance of whistle-blowing has also been confirmed internationally by the UN and OECD (Osterhaus & Fagan 2009). If protection of sources erodes, also a crucial part of such checks and balances of democratic society become destroyed which would ensure acceptability and accountability of the management.

Major players on the Internet have an increasing power on public and private sector.
However, their impact may turn for or against the censoring and surveillance efforts. They could use their significant power by making large scale positive impacts on civil rights and for an open society. Due to the political pressure, consumers' complaints and pressure of activists, companies have also occasionally changed their policies and indicated that they are capable to make ethical choices by request in certain cases. In 2010, Google announced it would stop censoring the Chinese version of its search engine (Fay 2010, Reporters Without Borders 2010). They could also support safer use of internet by providing tools which would improve users' capabilities to protect their privacy and anonymity, or give them more control over their person related data or tracking and locating functionalities: good examples of these anti-censorship measures include Do Not Track -legislation, Net neutrality -efforts, IMMI-project, which aims at gathering the best principles to protect freedom of information as a legislative package (Hastings 2011, Howe & Nissenbaum 2008, IMMI Status report 2012, Pike 2011, Wu 2007).

Censorship is not a new phenomenon. However, internet censorship is more threatening and powerful due to its' potential global scale and scope. It provides such dimensions of mass media, which are not comparable to earlier settings of censorship (Bitso & Fourie & Bothma 2012). Overall, any efficient and large-scale systems of controls, like ubiquitous environment represents, pose a threat and create significant risks for democratic society and civil rights. Since these comprehensive control systems already have been largely taken into use or their implementation is in progress, it would be necessary to face the conditions and consequences they develop. These developments should be recognized, understood and their social impacts should be estimated. In political decision making, it would be crucial to regulate the tools of mass control and ensure their accountable, acceptable and proportionate use in a way that democracy and civil rights are still valued.