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Democratic technology and unintended consequences

As the Egyptian protests show, technologies that democratize communications can also centralize control.

I was struck by this photo that appeared Sunday in the New York Times. It shows a crowd of Egyptian protesters listening to a military announcement. Try to count the number of people in the crowd who do not have a mobile device recording the action.

Photo of Egyptian protesters

Expanding people’s ability to communicate — from printing press to telegraph to telephone to text messaging — is always a revolutionary act. Communications technologies do not create the conditions for civic action (the unrest in Egypt is due to longstanding political repression), but they can accelerate the entire process by:

  1. Dramatically expanding the number of people directly involved in gathering, distributing and consuming information.
  2. Allowing a positive feedback loop to develop where people see the effect of their actions in real-time, which simultaneously reinforces commitment and recruits more members into the cause.

We tend to think of these technologies as inherently democratic. But the rub in all of this is that while these technologies democratize communications, they tend to monopolize surveillance and control.

So while more of us are capable of holding an open, peer-to-peer discussion, we are doing so with the consent and under the watchful (or subpoena-able) eye of just a handful of corporations or governments. And when citizen calls-to-action conflict with government calls for quiet, the government holds more of the cards. Vodafone has shut down cell phone communications in Egypt, the Egyptian government has effectively shut down Internet communications, and there are now calls for Ham radio operators to lend assistance as Egypt is being pushed back down the communications ladder.

In the “rich world” our experience of technology is often Utopian and our forecasts of negative consequences are framed only through our experience of current circumstance; we simply can’t imagine what it is like to live in a repressive government or believe that we will ever live under one. But the seemingly benign governments in which we reside are an historical contingency. If the past provides any lesson it is that governments will wax and wane in their concern for civil liberties and human rights. Yet our digital profile (purchase history, political and personal associations etc.) will remain. Through our participation in these technologies we are donating our data to a vast, indelible reservoir whose future utility is unknown to us.

I am actually optimistic about the future of the Internet as a medium to promote civil liberty, free expression, better government and corporate citizenship (if one can credibly use such a phrase). However, I don’t think it happens on its own. The Internet needs an architecture (legal and physical) to achieve such ends. Paradoxically I believe it requires some form of regulation to maintain its dynamic, emergent and decentralized properties so that any government or corporation has a limited ability to act in a crisis to shut things down.

Is access to communications a fundamental human right? If so, should a corporation have the ability to abrogate that right at the request of a host government? As we watch the battle between the Egyptian government’s attempts to throttle information flow (including how corporations defy or collaborate with these attempts) and the people’s struggle to maintain access to communications, we are seeing the contours of a struggle that will exemplify the next decades of political and policy changes as we try to define the increasingly critical relationship between technology and civil liberties.

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