Eight challenges of opening the web
Tags: healthy internet October 05, 2016
Since the day I was selected for the Ford-Mozilla Open Web Fellowship, I have been interrogated by many of ex-colleagues, friends and family about the notion of my commitment for the next ten months. Most of them see this fellowship just as a collaboration between eight people who will be nurtured by eight well-known civil society organizations situated in eight different locations in the world. Even though I had a similar take on the fellowship (of course with my personal motivations of contributing to ‘public interest computer science‘ and ‘advocacy’ sector), I sought more clarity after attending the fellowship onboarding week (12-16th September 2016) in Toronto. The discussion with Ford-Foundation (specifically Michael Brennan) and the Advocacy team of Mozilla Foundation helped me to understand their motto and thereby improvise my perspective of the open web fellowship. Based on that, I now foresee the fellows to be working on one or more of the following eight challenges of opening the web.
- The threat to freedom of expression: The Internet is meant to be an open platform for every individual to express their opinion about anything that matters to them. It could also include the freedom to report in public forums (such as freedom of the press) on the issues which could potentially affect more than one individual. However, the current Internet ecosystem such freedom is either denied, contested or controlled.
- The threat to personal identity: Everyone has their right to be different, which allows them to define and express their identity with people they want. However, these rights are suppressed regarding online bullying, harassment, and discrimination, not just by humans, but also by algorithms.
- The threat to personal space: The Internet has become an intuitive part of our day-to-day lives with its almost ubiquitous presence. In this realm, the privacy of our interaction with the Internet world is of utmost concern to many of us. Online identities and behaviors are used to secretly profile the Internet users. This data serve as a source of money for big corporates or as a target for governmental institutions to potentially claim you as ‘abnormal’ or ‘anti-social’ to steal your freedom of expression and identity.
- The threat to the Internet ecosystem: When we consider the Internet ecosystem as a whole, it has bigger problems imposed by governments such as ‘surveillance,’ ‘access censorship’ and repeated ‘Internet shutdowns’ which is sometimes beyond an individual’s control. On the other hand, big corporate players try to dominate the market by selling ‘fake Internet’ to people of those countries who cannot afford the privilege of Internet unlike rest of the world.
- Lack of transparency in public and government data: Many practitioners believe Internet as a learning platform which should allow its users to remix and reuse the existing online content. This perspective on Internet not only harnesses the collaboration between various communities but also creates space for new and innovative ideas in every possible aspect of day-to-day life. Opening the data for the public good should start right from the government sector, which could potentially include disclosing the data from traffic, urban plans, agriculture, etc. On the other hand, opening the data could also include having access to one’s personal data (which is collected by government or private companies) and the right to information (where an individual questions the authority). Unfortunately, the current state of the Internet lacks such transparency.
- Lack of efficient Internet policies and laws: Beyond all the threats as mentioned earlier, the Internet policies and laws in every country (or the whole world) should be accountable to be as inclusive as possible to respect individual preferences and privacy. When the private corporate sectors exploit the flaws in existing policies, the government policies should take a stand to be accountable to protect their citizens’ right to access the Internet as freely (‘free’ as in freedom) as possible. However, the government itself exploits the current policies, which are filled with flaws. The problem could be either that the Internet users are not well aware of their countries’ policies or because the policies are not strong enough to withhold their digital rights.
- Lack of awareness: The rant about Internet Freedom has increased after the Snowden revelations, even though it existed in the hacktivist community from a long time. In spite of that, most of the general public fail to understand the actual problem concerning their Internet usage. Firstly, they are not well informed about the value of their personal data (which leads to the discussion of ‘I have nothing to hide’), which is invariably exploited with or without their consent. Secondly, many of them are unaware of taking enough measures to protect themselves to retain their digital freedom.
- Inadequate strategies for user engagement: There exist many tools and methods to bypass the censorship, secure the online communication and preserve the privacy. However, many of these tools are way too complicated to be used by tech novices, and that is why Johnny still can not encrypt. The strategies to involve more users to access the Internet securely and privately is beyond the problem of raising awareness about the issues. In spite of extensive research done in academia and industry with regards to Internet security in general, ‘usable security’ - which deals with making ‘usable tools’ for everyone is a relatively new field. Until then, the Internet users, at least some of the targeted communities (such as LGBT) should be trained thoroughly on using the tools.
All the fellows including myself come from different tech backgrounds such as academic, corporate, training and art with an open mindset to free the internet from shackles, improve its capability and administration and make it truly people-friendly. To keep it as open as it is meant for, we span our next ten months to strengthen the existing technology stack, to create transparent policies and raise awareness among the public.