Special Issue of ALAI: Towards a People’s Internet

Latin America in Movement online is a monthly magazine that reviews regional issues, analyses social problems and engages in contemporary debates. It is an essential source of information for opinion leaders, social leaders , political activists , journalists and media , research centers , training schools , civil servants , development agencies and
solidarity movements , among others. It is a joint effort of analysts , thinkers, organisations, writers and communicators who are committed to social causes.  This month’s special issue asks ‘Is another Internet Possible?’


Extracted from the editorial by Sally Burch:

Just 25 years ago, most people had never used a computer, seen a mobile phone or heard of the Internet. These technologies are now so embedded in everyday life, that our ways of doing, living, working, consuming, interacting and organizing, are undergoing rapid transformation, bringing many benefits. The Internet is already the leading global database for purposes of education, knowledge, work, consumption and others; but for the same reasons, there are fundamental issues of human rights and public interest, related to control and decision-making power.  Hence, there are new challenges for the political-economic system and social coexistence, that our societies have not yet been able to process properly.

The invasion of communication privacy is perhaps one of the most obvious examples, since Edward Snowden’s revelations about massive spying by the US National Security Agency (NSA).  But there are many more areas where new issues are emerging, including: potential discrimination in automated screening of candidates for jobs, education, credit, and others; the loss of labor rights in the new “sharing economy”; or the excessive power of a single private transnational company – Google – to determine what is visible and what is not in the world’s biggest and most consulted data and knowledge base – i.e. the Web. This means that decisions on the development of Internet applications and usages have implications for human rights, justice, social and economic equity, and democracy, which require a framework of public policies and regulations at the national and international levels.

Decentralization or concentration

There is no doubt that the Internet, which was initially developed as a relatively decentralized system, has allowed the flourishing of countless initiatives of creativity and innovation. It is perhaps the first time that the population has access to freely participate in the development of a cutting-edge technology, rather than simply being a user.  With its adaptability to different scales, this technology has demonstrated its ability to empower citizen and community initiatives, under their own control.  It has also helped to democratize access to information, communication and knowledge; and allowed the proliferation of spaces – whether open or closed – for the free exchange of ideas, knowledge and creations, where a sense of common property and self-management prevails.

Under concepts such as “the commons”, free software and the culture of shared knowledge, many alternative technology initiatives are being developed, including free social networks, messaging services, blogging platforms, security systems, even an alternative system of domain names, Open Root, which is independent of the ICANN system.

Nevertheless, in parallel there has been another contrary trend towards concentration and centralization.  And, because of the so-called “network effect”, where users converge towards the more successful service, the Internet has also tended towards the formation of large monopolies, with an unprecedented economic accumulation, and the consequent concentration of power.  The “raw material” of this enrichment is the accumulated data (personal and other) that users – often involuntarily – deliver to these companies in exchange for “free” services; data that are sold to advertisers, which are the preferred clients of these companies; while users, as potential consumers, become the “product”.  Moreover, to reinforce their control, public spaces are being fenced-in behind “walls” within the private platforms of online social networks, where the rules are defined by the corporate supplier.

Between these two opposite trends – decentralization, or concentration/ monitoring/ cyber weapons – the balance is tilting dangerously towards the latter, with potentially serious consequences for human rights and social and economic justice, and even democracy itself.  This is because market forces push strongly toward concentration; but also because the technological development of the Internet has not properly prioritized the security of users.  Also, there are few measures in terms of legislation or public policies designed to bring some sort of order in this area.  There are even cases where legislation goes in the opposite direction, sacrificing the security and privacy of users, supposedly to protect people from terrorism, although without evidence that it is effective.


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