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The Networked Society and Personal Freedom

Given the current debate around mass surveillance which is undertaken by both governments and (social) media companies, the recurring question is what is happening to our hard-fought personal freedom?

In the case of government-based mass surveillance there isn’t an opt-out option, and in reality opt-out is also not a valid solution to services provided by Google, Apple, Facebook and the millions of apps that we all use to some extent or another. These services and apps are becoming essential in modern society and opting out of them would lead to severe personal disadvantages.

So what is at stake here in relation to personal freedom? My hobby being history, I would go back to the height of the Roman Republic around 100BC, before the civil wars and the arrival of the empire.

In relation to personal freedom all Roman citizens enjoyed equal freedom. They did not live in fear of others. They had the political structures in place for all levels of citizenship, and personal freedom had an equal outcome for all its citizens. They could look each other straight in the eye, ‘without bending a knee’.

Of course it is important to note that Roman citizenship did not extend to woman or slaves. But we have to remember that more than 2,000 years ago was a totally different period in history. There was also huge financial inequality in relation to wealth; the 1% problem existed at that time too. Nevertheless within those constrains there was a true sense of personal freedom among Roman citizens.

In most democratic countries we have been able to build up similar structures of personal freedom, especially since WWII; and of course we don’t have slaves; and women are now far more equally included in today’s society.

But getting to where we are now took a long time. We are still working on equality, be it in the workplace, home, society or the economy. Personal freedom is still under threat because of structural systems of domination in our society (child abuse by religious leaders, domestic violence by men, certain work conditions, as well as authoritarian behaviour by some leaders in business and government).

Personal freedom comes under threat as soon as the tools of fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) are used by those involved in structural domination.

This brings me to mass surveillance as this is one of these tools on a national level. The fact that these tools are used makes people less trusting, more fearful of those in charge of these tools, and this in turn undermines personal freedom. There might be a number of good reasons for mass surveillance, such a potentially getting a better grip on terrorism and crime, or in the case of using it for advertising purposes, providing free access to internet and mobile app services, but the intrusion into personal freedom will always be in the minds of most people, and they will react by being more fearful and suspicious. I have addressed some of these issues in previous blogs: Consumers are the serfs of the feudal internet companies, The pros and cons of technological innovations and How to move cybersecurity forward in a more positive way.

However, the success of mass surveillance is questionable, as we have witnessed in the various terrorist attacks in Boston, Sydney and Paris. It is also a positive step forward that the USA government has now stopped its mass surveillance program and replaced it with a far more targeted approach.

In relation to social media the level of data saturation is now such that its value to advertisers is becoming questionable; and the use of ad blockers is something else that will only increase and further undermine the advertising value of the social media and other digital services.

In general terms government surveillance services are introduced with strong regulation but, whether for security reasons or advertising purposes, it is nearly always followed by creep and the consequent weakening of government regulation and the conditions imposed by the social media.

With surveillance tools in place it also becomes easier to further undermine ‘freedom’. Examples include the American government forcing the media to restrain itself when reporting terrorism; laws in Australia that prevent community and healthcare workers from going public on problems in the refugee detention centres; and perhaps people being, in general, worried about criticising government decisions.

This is not just in relation to government policies. We also see a reluctance to take on or challenge big businesses, as they have more money and legal resources to intimidate journalists, activists and others who might threaten to expose their misdoings. I warned again the tendency of plutocracy and mediacracy, where business power and media power is used to undermine the level of ‘equality outcome’ needed in order to have a society based on personal freedom for all.

When addressing these issues, we will need to think about engaging philosophers to guide us, as some of this goes to our core as open and free human beings.

This is all food for thought for those of us involved in creating the networked society. It has so many positives to offer, but at the same time we must face its darker side in order to address any unwanted side effects. The networked society has the ability to offer equality for all—it offers a much flatter society and a more grassroots-based democracy. But this will not happen automatically. It will require significant effort from all involved, and we most certainly also need the assistance from the broader society and in particular from people outside our traditional tech world.

By Paul Budde, Managing Director of Paul Budde Communication

Paul is also a contributor of the Paul Budde Communication blog located here.

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