by Garry Kasparov
The example on everyone’s minds is, of course, Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, now further confirmed by special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. The Kremlin’s use of social media to stoke existing partisan tensions in the U.S., achieved through a sophisticated multi-million-dollar operation, resulted in the indictment in February of thirteen Russian nationals and three companies.
We see the dangers of our high-tech lives in the news headlines every week, and it’s essential to distinguish hysteria from the bigger threats. On the same day as the first fatal accident involving a self-driving car, Facebook came under fire after it was revealed that a voter-profile company had harvested over 50 million Facebook profiles. The pedestrian death in Arizona is a tragedy, of course, and it reminds us that there are always setbacks and dangers in racing ahead with any new technology. The Facebook news, however, and what has already been revealed about how the platform was exploited by Russian propaganda and fake news, is far more relevant about the threats we, and our society, face in our high-tech environment.
Exchanging your personal data for services is so common because it works. As the expert Zeynep Tufekci describes the Facebook story in the New York Times, this wasn’t technically a data breach, it’s a business model. For users, it feels like getting something for nothing, and that may be true on a personal level, at least in the short run. Having everything about you—and your social network—sold to advertisers or political operatives might feel a little creepy, but is it so bad? First, keep in mind that all the personal data you share in exchange for services doesn’t stay in one place. It’s frequently sold, traded, and stolen. Second, it’s exploited in ways that have great risks for society, allowing targeting and manipulation on a scale only possible in the digital age.
None of us is going to go “off the grid” or delete all our social media accounts. (Although users leaving and others threatening a boycott is likely the most effective way to push the balance back toward user privacy.) We can, however, protect ourselves better. Most social media platforms have privacy settings that offer very little privacy by default; you can make them stricter. Some browsers allow this as well in their settings, and some third-party security applications can do an even better job. And if the idea of a company or hacker browsing your browser history makes you nervous, a VPN is becoming a common choice. If this sounds like a hassle, so is locking the doors to your car and house and brushing your teeth every day. We do these things for health and safety, and digital hygiene is just as important.
Two other recent events highlight the potential for government abuses in cyberspace. Such events are happening all the time, whether they are covered extensively by the media for a few days or stay under the radar until a major scandal breaks. There are changes we can push for in our technology infrastructure that will help make us safer, although the companies that create and maintain that infrastructure must also be pressured to make the environment more secure. Systemic changes are necessary to ensure that the products of digital innovation contribute to human flourishing, and not to authoritarianism and repression.
Macau, an autonomous territory in the south of China, recently put forth new cybersecurity legislation. If passed into law, they would establish a draconian surveillance regime in the region. All internet users would have to identify themselves fully, using their real names, in all of their online activities; internet service providers, ISPs, would be required to keep logs of this activity for one year. Local and centralized cybersecurity committees would be created to keep track of this information, working in conjunction with government departments, ostensibly to prevent cyberattacks. In short, the legislation would lay the groundwork for mass state surveillance under the guise of increased national security.
Macau, a Portuguese outpost until 1999, still has some vestige of democratic liberties, which is the only reason news about this program became available at all. In the rest of China, as in so many other authoritarian states, a totalitarian digital infrastructure is already in effect. As I always do, I remind you that while many free countries also have powerful data collection capabilities, they are part of the push-pull with government oversight, media, NGOs, and empowered citizens. None of those exist in a dictatorship. How a government treats the people is what matters.
Also in February, Facebook-owned social media platform Instagram recently removed posts by Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny after a complaint by the Russian government, followed by threats to ban entire services in Russia. The posts provided evidence for corruption, containing images and video footage taken on a private yacht that suggest a bribe was offered by a prominent oligarch to the deputy prime minister.. Russia demanded that the video be taken down and Instagram complied, although the video remains available on Google’s YouTube.
It is deeply concerning to see U.S.-based companies, who achieved their success thanks to the openness and competition of the free world, bending so willingly to the demands of authoritarians. In a country like Russia, where the government has a virtual monopoly over traditional media, social media is a key way for activists to reach their supporters. When Facebook takes down sensitive information at the behest of a dictatorship, it directly supports that regime’s suppression of dissenting voices. There is also leverage in calling these regimes bluffs. Actually banning Facebook and Instagram, or Google and YouTube, or iPhones, would result in a serious backlash in Russia and elsewhere. Instead, these regimes enjoy a double standard while bullying and censoring these American-owned platforms.
Companies like Facebook, Google, and Apple must articulate the principles they stand for. Technological progress is not a human value. Neutrality does not exist. Claims that they are apolitical are deflections, and even by doing nothing they become complicit. Companies from the free world that empower the world’s most repressive regimes should be held to account. The myth that economic engagement alone will help liberalize authoritarian governments has been refuted time and again. Dictatorships use these powerful tools against their own people and against the nations that created them. They may not have been designed as weapons, but they are used as weapons.
The tech giants must end this double standard—or lack of standards—even if that means staying out of certain markets. They must recognize that they wield enormous power in shaping the future and, moreover, that it is their own long-term interests to protect freedom and democracy. These are the bedrocks of innovation—a world without them is one in which human potential is left unrealized and future technological advancements are never are achieved. Consumers have the power to drive these changes, which is preferable to government regulation that risks inhibiting innovation.
Of course, even if the major tech giants institute this courageous and forward-thinking approach, we will still face threats. China and Russia can develop their own tools. We have already seen Russia exploit weaknesses in the internet architecture (and human nature) to tamper with elections around the globe. China, meanwhile, has an immense population advantage that helps it gather vast amounts of data, which is key for progress in the sphere of artificial intelligence. Nevertheless, the free world still holds a decisive advantage; we have tremendous brainpower, creativity, and a major head start. We must fight to keep this edge.
With all of that said, I would like to conclude by paying tribute to one of the greatest visionaries of the internet, and one of its most unwavering optimists. John Perry Barlow, the founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), passed away last month at age 70. The EFF is a non-profit focused on defending freedom of expression and privacy online through expert analysis, legal advocacy, and grassroots campaigns.
I support the EFF’s mission and Barlow’s pioneering efforts to realize the incredible promise of the internet. But perhaps due to my Soviet background, my philosophy diverges in a key way. While the world always needs utopian visionaries to help us realize our potential and inspire our dreams, my realist side reminds me that fulfillment of any technology’s potential depends on the intentions of the people who use it. While the internet offers a space that can seem to transcend traditional power dynamics, it has become, inevitably, another arena for the same global conflicts that rage offline. The online world is inseparable from our human one—we cannot escape the problems of bad government and hateful values through the seductive illusion of a cyber-utopia. It must be possible to influence the architecture of the internet to make it more difficult for criminals and dictatorships to abuse its power without losing the freedom and innovation it enables in the free world.
As part of the fight against repression, then, we must ask major tech companies to do their part, as well as institute commonsense technological design measures that make the misuse of digital tools more difficult. Oversight, transparency, and accountability are always the cornerstones; there is no other way to build the trust that distinguishes the free world from the unfree world. In conjunction with a broader societal push for freedom and democracy, these steps can help transform the appealing vision of internet optimists like Barlow into an enduring reality.