From optimism to delusion: Cyber-technologies, democracy and surveillance

Géraud de Ville is a PhD student at the Open University, Department of Engineering & Innovation. His research focuses on the use of information and communication technologies by indigenous communities in the Guiana Shield. In addition, he is a researcher on the EU-funded @Project_Cobra that uses participatory video and photo to disseminate community-owned solutions for the management of natural resources. This week, Géraud de Ville questions the impact of cyber-technologies on democracy. 

Thanks to the tremendous development of information and communication technologies (ICT) and the growing accessibility of the digital network, activists and citizens have found a new space for political expression: the Internet. We should be enthusiastic about these developments and embrace ICTs where it helps us build a better future. But we should also be wary of its downsides, and not be fooled into false digital promises.

From the Arab revolutions to Indigenous-led campaigns and, more recently, the spontaneous social movements that burst in Turkey and Brazil, over the last three years, the Internet seems to have turned into a megaphone for political dissidents and human rights activists. The networked nature of web 2.0 applications, in particular social media, and the explosion of users worldwide provide activists with unprecedented tools to communicate their ideas, mobilise supporters and take action outside established hierarchical power structures. Platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have become privileged fields of action for professional campaigners as well as grassroots movements.

With their built-in feature allowing many-to-many communication, social media have revolutionised the way information is produced and shared: everyone is encouraged to participate, share opinions, pictures and videos on issues that they care about or witness and instantly upload them from their smartphone on the Internet. Institutions and individuals that represent public authority are now under constant citizen scrutiny. They know that any abuse, any mistake can spark online retaliation and take proportions that are hard to control. Many cyberactivists and academics see in digital networks a new source of power that will eventually force the ruling elite around the world to become more transparent, accountable and favour human rights and democracy.    

Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a technological fix to a complex problem and, the solution itself carries its own load of downsides. Indeed, while digital technologies have participated to the success of social and revolutionary movements, they also tremendously enhance the effectiveness of state surveillance. Due to the supervision they exert on the physical infrastructure, governments are tempted to use digital networks to control populations by monitoring communications, blocking access of certain users or even tracking and imprisoning digital dissidents, e.g. in China and Iran.

Recent revelations by the Guardian on the surveillance system set up by the US National Security Agency (NSA) and its British counterpart: the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) have shown that this is not an exclusive feature of authoritarian or non-democratic regimes. The Western surveillance system uses every single means at hand, from tapping online communications and phone calls, to extorting user data from private companies such as Google, Apple and Microsoft, and to archiving billions of bits of personal information into highly secure data centres, all in the name of security.

Let’s be clear on one thing: it is still preferable to be a political dissident in the US than it is to be in a country like China. But the level of surveillance achieved by democratic governments, in clear violation of their own privacy rules and without public debate, as well as the pressure exerted against whistleblowers and journalists who stand up against it, is unsettling. Admittedly, they seem closer to the practices of Beijing or Tehran than those of Washington, DC or London.

We would be wrong to assume that digital technologies have some kind of built-in determinism that will necessarily result in a more transparent and democratic society. Such assumption is inaccurate and will only lead to greater pitfalls once the bulk reality catches upon us. So, is this the price to pay? Are we condemned to see our hopes in the ability of digital technologies to make the world a better place vanish, only to realise that they are in fact weakening the rule of law and human rights at home?

Not necessarily. For one, a series of people and organisations – from Mozilla to the Electronic Frontier Foundation – are working to keep the Internet free, open and secure for activists and ordinary citizens. These, in turn, need to start adapting their behaviour and take the necessary measures to limit unwanted access to their personal information, e.g. by using encryption schemes. In addition, we need to involve our representatives in Parliament into a public debate about state’s eavesdropping practices and support the adoption of a regulatory framework that is flexible enough to respond to a fast-evolving sector and strong enough to keep us secure from the abuses of state surveillance.

You can follow Géraud de Ville at @gerauddv and


One Comment Add yours

Leave a Reply