Every breath you take

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A few weeks ago, I wrote a somewhat tongue in cheek article about self-service cash machines, and I got the predictable comments about being a Luddite. Oh well, here we go again, I think. I have often written about my unease with social media platforms, and how their algorithms are designed to decide on our behalf what it is we’ll get to see on Facebook, or YouTube, or whatever. What this often leads to is that people only get to access websites or Facebook pages that the media platforms have decided would interest them. There is also a growing unease globally about the power that Facebook, Instagram, Google, and so on have over our viewing habits, how we access news and information, and what sources of news and information we see.

This sounds a little paranoid, perhaps. That is, until you see what’s happened in Australia recently. The Australian Government introduced legislation that would force the social media giants to share some of the wealth they’ve been swooping up by re-posting news and advertisements originally created by others. That in itself was a problem that had to be addressed, and the Australians believed that legislation was the answer.

However, the response of Facebook was to shut down their service to all of Australia in protest against the government’s moves. This turned out to be a disastrous public relations move by Facebook, as they managed to shut down vital pages relating to health and welfare, government services, information about the pandemic and the roll-out of vaccination programs in Australia, as well as pages by schools and charities. They even managed to shut down the Facebook corporation’s own Australia page.

Response around the world has been severely critical of Facebook, and it really underlined the power that the media platform has around the world. They are accountable to no-one in exercising this control, and that has served to strengthen suspicions and criticism of social media platforms in general.

The positive aspect to all of this is that people are becoming more aware of the extent to which their “freedom” to browse the internet is based largely on a myth. The algorithms used by these platforms, mean that when you open Facebook, Google, YouTube, and others, the choice of sites and pages you find suggested to you are based on the kind of sites you’ve previously visited. That makes sense to an extent; but it also sharply limits the range of sites you are told about, making it harder to break out of a narrow bubble to find new ideas, new approaches, new sources of information and news.

As we have seen so recently in the US, this can become a serious threat to society and to the kind of conversations around important issues that ensure a healthy community. If all you ever see and read is from a single viewpoint, which either ignores other opinions, to label them as dangerous, subversive and threatening to you, then sides become entrenched and we stop hearing each other. This is a genuine threat to any democratic society.

This reflects a very old question: how much freedom is real freedom, and how easily can freedom be abused by parties to control the dialogue and set agendas. If you can only see one side of any issue, because that’s all you’re “allowed” to see by an algorithm, then how free is our access to the internet really? The wonderful thing about the World Wide Web from the beginning was the access it gave everyone to the world of information, entertainment, education, and amusement. All this was available in your own home, without need for teachers, buildings, set curricula, etc.

A popular saying in Britain is: “An Englishman’s home is his castle”. This came from Magna Carta, which said that even the King could not enter a subject’s home without his permission. We know that authorities cannot enter a home without a search warrant: the same principle in effect. This was a revolutionary change in medieval society, and one that has been rightly cherished as a fundamental right in our society. What irony, then, that we have willingly and often unknowingly, allowed entrance into our homes of those with the power to influence our thinking, to shape our ideas, and even to spy on our likes, dislikes, secrets and amusements.

The internet is too precious to lose, and its potential is practically unlimited. But so, it seems, is the power of those platforms that steal our private information, sell our personal data to corporations who use it to enrich themselves, and decide for us the limits of our online “freedom”.

Be aware. Use your head and protect your privacy. “Every breath you take, every move you make, every bond you break, every step you take, I’ll be watching you.”

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