Power in the Digital Age
Cathleen Berger explores how giant data-driven companies are challenging old ideas about power and accountability, and what should be done about it.
After 20 years since the rise of the internet, widespread dependence on information and communications technologies (ICTs) has put unprecedented power in the hands of private companies. Today the very foundations of democratic society are at risk as decisions about surveillance and censorship are increasingly taken by unaccountable internet giants instead of publicly elected authorities. Challenging such patterns of power, requires strategic approaches to advocacy, supported and enabled by rights-respecting technologies.
In addition to intelligence agencies like the National Security Agency and the Government Communications Headquarters, tech behemoths, including the internet service and security provider Cloudflare, base their entire business model on surveillance. By inserting itself between user and web host – officially to safeguard a site from attacks – Cloudflare collects, stores and analyzes massive amounts of data on user behavior. In doing so, without scrutiny or oversight, it decides which traffic will be allowed to visit a certain site and which will get blocked. Users who browse anonymously and prevent Cloudflare from analyzing their data end up in an endless circle of captchas, unable to access certain webpages. The company has become the guardian to the right to access information for roughly 2 million sites.
When resulting from democratically adopted laws, censorship can have an acceptable place in society by protecting the public from criminal or violent content. But when people agree to the terms of services required by platforms like Twitter or WeChat, it is companies that regulate what content the public can access. Content rules can be socially and culturally biased and remove censorship decisions from the realm of public debate. While in theory users could boycott such services, pressure to connect to networks used by friends, family, and colleagues is a powerful stranglehold.
The level of power that corporate actors now wield is cause for concern. Social media platforms also profile their users in order to influence their decisions. Behavior and data are not only analyzed and sold for targeted advertising, they also determine which news and stories we see, and may even affect turnout during elections. To make matters worse, governments have become dependent on private companies for elements of state authority, including troublesome means of predictive policing and other security-related decisions.
There are three major problems with these developments. First, surveillance, censorship, and automated profiling apply on a mass scale. Every user, regardless of their jurisdiction, affiliation, or disposition, is collectively affected. Society as a whole becomes a target.
Second, this has disturbing implications for our rights to privacy, freedom of expression, assembly and association. It threatens our ability to protect minorities by spreading uniform cultural norms shaped by tech giants and it increasingly undermines the presumption of innocence by implicating people due to perceived, automated patterns.
And third, globally acting and connected private actors are not subject to the same mechanisms of oversight and accountability that democratic governments must adhere to – they are more adept at using loopholes or relocating to jurisdictional ‘safe havens’.
In order to challenge the power in the hands of private companies, we can turn to at least two avenues for advocacy.
Democratically, we have to push for adequate regulation of corporate power and data-driven business models. We need stricter and clearer rules for transparency that, for example, require companies to share the variables used in their algorithms. And we need to support progressive data protection legislation that sets the rules for data ownership and defines the limits for how data can be gathered, stored and correlated. Unless limitations are put in place, companies like Cloudflare and Google will continue to explore unregulated gray zones.
While absolutely crucial, this approach has limitations. With regard to international regulation, there are undeniable geopolitical differences and when it comes to mustering the political will necessary to introduce changes and limit existing patterns of power, it can be challenging due to established elites and corporate influence on politics. And if we only focus our advocacy efforts on regulating corporations in the current system, we also have to trust our governments to be and remain democratic and accountable. So legal protections alone will not provide the solution.
What is needed are secure, rights-respecting technological alternatives that are easy to use. Tools like the NetAidKit for browsing, Peerio for file sharing, or SubgraphOS as an operating system can certainly play their part in mainstream adoption by focusing on design and usability while providing high standards of security and data protection.
Such tools must go hand-in-hand with global knowledge, transparency, and anonymity networks that contribute to fundamental aspects of democracy. Wikipedia, for instance, is a successful example of crowd-sourcing and imparting knowledge. Wikileaks, or the more distributed version of Globaleaks, serves to hold authorities accountable. And Tor is on a good path to bring anonymity to the wider public by automatically connecting to the network on Wifi provided by libraries and museums.
By promoting such alternatives to current mainstream platforms, strategic advocacy can help to challenge the power of data-driven businesses like Cloudflare.
Technology itself is neutral, but the debate about how we use it is deeply political. Let’s make sure it empowers a societal and political movement that puts power in the digital age back in the hands of the people.
Cathleen Berger is an independent foreign and ICT policy expert. She currently runs a program at Global Partners Digital aimed at empowering underrepresented voices in cyber policy debates and decision-making processes. She can be reached at cathleen(at)gp-digital.org as well as via Twitter, @_cberger_. For more from the Global Governance Futures 2027, please see here.