The Power of Being Big Brother

The two passages we read this week from The Filter Bubble and The Net Delusion are eerily connected. Eli Pariser’s Filter Bubble explains the start up of America’s largest Internet companies and the algorithms behind their successes. The technology behind Amazon, Google, and Facebook allows companies to constantly monitor our Internet activity. Big brother no longer has to be creative in obtaining our personal information when we are feeding it everything from our political ideologies, favorite designers, and geographical location on a constant basis. The days of the unmanageable Internet have disappeared. The issue is that if businesses are able to collect this data, so can authoritarian governments. Governments have the power to monitor what Internet users search and censor material they deem to be dangerous.

I found Chapter 3 of Morozov’s book interesting because he challenges the conventional wisdom about the effectiveness of authoritarian governments using censorship. He uses Eastern Germany as an example that access to information made citizens less politically active because when given the choice they consumed entertainment. However, in Chapter 4, the discussion turns to governments and their mastery over the art of censorship.

Two issues were in the back of my mind while reading these articles. First, I wondered if governments like China and Saudi Arabia stopped censoring the Internet, would it make a difference? Morozov argues that freedom of information to flow freely will not dissolve the authoritarian government but make citizens more content. The second dealt with the potential monetary benefits companies could obtain by providing authoritarian governments with the data they collect from Internet users. The government would have, and could already, have limitless access to our personal information if they chose to buy it from a data collecting company.

So here are my questions to the class. Should an authoritarian government censor information on the Internet if they wish to remain in power?  Is it ethical for companies be able to sell the personal information they collect from Internet users without their knowledge?

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About coxmarg

If I'm honest I have to tell you I still read fairy-tales and I like them best of all. - Audrey Hepburn
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4 Responses to The Power of Being Big Brother

  1. mjslovin says:

    I believe your second question is a bit more straightforward than the first, but I’ll weigh in on each. As you noted, authoritarian governments no longer need to jump through the proverbial hoops in order to monitor their citizens’ Internet activity. It’s far too easy for them to do this, and that’s why I’ll argue that censorship, while highly unethical, is one of the calling cards of an authoritarian government, and will be consistently used. If I try to put myself in the shoes of an authoritarian leader, I would imagine that the information gained by observing Internet usage would be helpful in preventing espionage and potential coups, as well as limiting the information flow to the citizens, which Morozov examines in quite some depth. As for your second question, it seems much more obvious than the first — no, it should not be deemed ethical for companies to have this power, which would almost certainly be abused. As long as the Internet exists, there will always be a certain amount of trust placed in it by its users. As soon as that trust is breached, and the example you give would be a breach of trust, then people will become even more skeptical of the information they put on the Internet for all to see. Thanks for the insightful post.

  2. sheypat says:

    I believe that authoritarian governments should not use censorship in order to remain in power. The internet is an undoubtedly powerful resource that has become available to us. While it does allow for more civic engagement through the new abundance of readily available material, it also allows for certain institutions to use the medium in un-ethical ways. Censorship is one of the unethical uses of the internet. In my opinion, the internet, in respect to political activism, should only be used to spread information and inform citizens so they can deliberate to make better decisions. If the government starts to censor the internet, so that citizens are getting even less information, it will essentially be counterproductive to its intended use. Citizens will be making uninformed decisions.

    I’m less certain about the second question. On one hand, I do see how companies using personal information they have can actually be efficient for both the company and the consumer. If pop-up advertisements for sports (which I am not interested in) are constantly showing up, the sports company will not benefit, nor will I. On the other hand, if shopping advertisements from my favorite stores start to show up, I will be able to see the deals, and the company will benefit because I might not have gone there otherwise. While I do think it is unethical to take personal knowledge WITHOUT a consumer’s knowledge, some people may not necessarily mind for the above reason.

  3. maddock35 says:

    If an authoritarian government wishes to remain in power, a free and clear Internet is the way to go. As we’ve read, research shows that people become more complacent when they are given free range to explore the Internet. To help ensure citizens don’t begin becoming more politically active, the government can create its own programming or online content. The content does not even have to be pro-government, it simply has to entertain the people enough so that they won’t get bored and look at things like politics. The problems for authoritarian governments occur when they DO censor. My explanation is that people are more enraged about restrictions on their online freedom than about the content being restricted. The content being blocked could be Sesame Street for all they care.

    I’m not sure if companies like Facebook and Amazon include in their Terms of Service that they are allowed to sell your personal information, but if they do then short of the whole world quitting Facebook and Amazon there is not much we can do. However, if that is not included, I think they have no right to sell our information. We put our information on their sites so we can improve our experience on it, not so companies can add to their data banks.

  4. alemor7 says:

    I think the question of ethics is equally as applicable if not more applicable to your first question, not just the second. I believe that it is unethical and immoral for governments to use their authoritative power to censor media and their citizens’ ability to access certain information as a means to retain their power. I feel that citizens should have the right to be well-informed on controversial issues and should be supplied with correct and accurate information so that they can formulate their own thoughts and opinions based on facts. Using governmental powers to censor the information made available to the general public is a manipulative tool that could not only slow down the progression of the country and hold back its citizens, but could also produce an environment that benefits the government at the expense of its citizens and could put its citizens in harms way. Additionally, I think it is unethical for companies to sell personal information without consent. However, this becomes tricky because there are many services which are commonly used that include the right to sell information in the fine print of the terms of agreement that most users do not read. This is tricky because by including it one either has to consent or they cannot partake in things such as Facebook that have become so commonplace that not having a Facebook might cause one to feel left out. Overall, while I think that information gathering can be used for beneficial things if put in the hands of the right people, I also feel that it is a very tricky situation that can get out of hand very quickly and could also create a wide array of negative byproducts along the way.

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