The Internet is like a galaxy: no-one controls it, no-one manages it, no-one can fully grasp it. It is free and anarchistic. In a decentralized network everyone can freely communicate with everyone else, without any surveillance. We got used to thinking that way, yet this is a dangerous illusion. The Internet was established for military purposes, leaving no room for anonymousness. Each movement in the network leaves a digital trace which may be read out and used. The Internet is a new incarnation of the Panopticon: a space in which we do not always know who and for what purpose is observing us, however, we can be sure that this is happening.
The Internet Galaxy is also a battlefield for power: the power over information on millions of people which in the conditions of the information society becomes the most precious commodity. The potential of the world wide web has been first noticed by scientists, but very quickly governments and multinational corporations joined the game. Until now an unquestionable advantage in that field has been on the side of the United States, but more and more louder the new economic giants: China, Russia or Brazil demand their share in the management of the global network, using the UN structures to that end.
Gigabytes of data flowing through the servers of those companies create unprecedented possibilities to follow and profile our behaviours.
The Internet emerged as a network of equally privileged connections between so-called data terminal equipment, or end users' devices (everything that can be connected to the network) – without the main hubs and central databases. Nothing has changed on the level of technology, yet with time an entirely different information architecture has developed. Intermediaries joined the game – companies offering services such as electronic mail, social networking sites or web browsers – taking over, as it were, on our request, control over information. Gigabytes of data flowing through the servers of those companies create unprecedented possibilities to follow and profile our behaviours. Due to that same reason the Internet intermediaries became a valuable source of information for governments – not only the democratic ones and not always acting on a warrant.
Following clients without their consent and knowledge; creating detailed profiles on the basis of which the advertising message is selected; making personal data available to prosecution authorities and other entities, e.g. organizations of collective management of copyright; blocking and filtering content arbitrarily deemed illegal – are but a few examples of practices which citizens-web users have to face. And it is true that those who have information on us have the power. The power to influence our minds, to manipulate, create needs, but also to knock on our door at dawn and arrest us (if not us in person, then our computer).
Profiling, which became the essence of the web business, has a large discriminatory potential. More and more often it appears that a specific service – not only an insurance package, but even a book in an internet bookstore – has the price and availability conditioned on the client's profile. The other side of the same phenomenon is the profiling of information to meet the needs of the one who is requesting it. For our convenience, browsers filter the results so that everyone gets what they were probably looking for, and not thousands of other results which are associated with the same keyword. Having typed "Egypt", some people receive vacation offers, others - photos of the protesters on Tahrir square. Thus, our image of the world is shaped, as less and less frequently we have the time to "dig deeper", browse through the list of search results.
The Internet responded with a specific offer to the postmodern crisis of values and ties. It soon became apparent that in the web it is possible to "be together", be part of "a community", easier and at a lower cost than in real life. With time, the boundary between one and the other has blurred: the Internet simply became another layer of social life. In the social dimension, the web gained however a yet stronger disciplining potential. People not only want to, but also must be visible – under the threat of exclusion from the digital society, under the threat of "being out of the market", as this function is more and more frequently fulfilled by community portals.
The Internet, like a lens, focuses different techniques and philosophies of surveillance. Therefore, it is probably the most important battle field for our freedom in the digital age.
A human being functioning in cyberspace faces new dilemmas: to take advantage of the freedom potential offered by the Internet infrastructure, or to entrust oneself to the care (and control) of intermediaries; use the services anonymously, or accept those "tailor-made" ones; pay for them with money, or with own personal data. The Internet, like a lens, focuses different techniques and philosophies of surveillance. It is probably the most important field of the battle for our freedom in the digital age.
We cannot surrender this field. Therefore, at the Panoptykon Foundation we educate and raise awareness, showing both opportunities and challenges; we monitor what in the sphere of Internet regulation is planned by governments and international organizations; we run campaigns and intervene when the rights and freedoms of citizens–users are in danger. The war for the free and open Internet is being waged on multiple fronts: intellectual property rights enforcement, content blocking and filtering, net neutrality, role of the intermediaries, the model of Internet management. First great battles are already behind us, but the new division of power over information has not been made yet.