Human rights Opinion

Reclaiming our freedoms from big tech and government amid COVID-19

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Companies such as Amazon pose dangers to our freedoms (image by James Duncan Davidson via Flickr)

Issues of freedom of the press and privacy are threatened across the world, but not all hope is lost, writes Leo Rueck.

ONCE UPON A TIME, a man took on a long journey into the Mexican desert. Although nobody listened, he spoke about murdered journalists and pledged to stand up for the freedom of the press. The man was Heiko Maas, Germany's Foreign Affairs Minister.

His speech in May 2019 will only rest as a marginal note in the history of a world that has changed dramatically. Even though a rise of violence against journalists can be seen in almost every western democracy and an increasing amount of private data is being collected from everyone of us, most would say that we are free. 

Right now during the current pandemic, the state of our informational freedoms is changing at a horrifying speed, regarding altered consumer behaviour, closed cinemas and theatres, highly requested but struggling newspapers and the expansion of governmental monitoring.

The coronavirus is a new character appearing on the screen of history who roughs up the recurring Mexican standoff between Freedom and the villain called Surveillance. This villain is perhaps best known for his role as Stasi, the gigantic intelligence service of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) who spied on their people to an extent never and nowhere seen before.

But this time Surveillance plays a much more complex character as he offers effective traffic solutions, social proximity and epidemic control. Now the new guy, the erratic, comes along equally with hope and fear to accelerate the story, to push the character development of both opponents.

Democracy is a state of balanced power, but also of balanced information. People can wield power upon their government through power levers like voting, legal actions or disobedience (including strikes, protests and riots). But a vote has little or no effect without informational exchange, carried out through theatres, newspapers, music, even personal conversations and so on.

Every social or cultural sector has a certain weight in an informational balance which symbolises how much it can influence the narrative. Like two pendulums connected by a rubber band, weight gain on one balance will also favour weight gain on the other balance.

This applies to politics as well as to climate activists or any form of power relation, even families. In other words, a position of power can be received through the conquest of the narrative. In the worst case, such a position can be used to erode the power levers of opposing groups which can be seen in Poland and Hungary.

The coronavirus has caused some weight shifts in the informational balance. Some parts of the systems like theatre, cinema, art exhibitions or even table talks lay fallow (with the chance to flourish in new, exciting ways), other parts like virtual communication, streaming, and TV are booming. The demand for news, scientific information and governmental announcements have risen, while the consumption of sports declined. All these specific weights in the informational balance will be re-negotiated and re-evaluated in the public discourse during and after the crises, potentially leading to new power dimensions.

Not only in China – but in almost all countries around the world – governmental monitoring was expanded in the past months. Allegedly, with the intention of being able to control the pandemic. On first sight, it doesn't seem to make much of a difference as everybody knows, the amount of data, which is being collected about us, would already leave every intelligence agent of the Stasi jealous.

Of course, it does make a difference, though.

Without a doubt, more information about us lies on the servers of Amazon and other behemoths than the Stasi ever had in their 111km of filing cabinets that could be saved from eradication. While our situation differs from that of the people in the GDR, the issue is not to what extent data is being gathered, but to what extent it can be used to control and suppress.

Unlike in the GDR, the power levers are still in our hands. The rise of the technologies that brought all the amenities came along with deterioration for our informational weight, causing a shift in the power relationship between us as individuals and big tech.

Those companies still can be prosecuted for unbearable working conditions, the employees can still strike for fair wages, and you still can vote for any political party who wants to fight tax evasion. All these issues have become slightly more difficult, though, as those companies are able to influence the publication of information about it.

Recently, big companies like Tesco and Amazon were accused of using keyword blocking to prevent ads being placed next to coronavirus-related content. In consequence, advertising revenues on which many news organisation rely on were falling to a life-threatening low ebb.

Big tech is indeed able to use data and its market position to influence the consumption of content which is non-related to its own business sector. As the case of Cambridge Analytica had shown, even elections can be influenced by a company if it is able to gain enough data and knows how to use it. If states collect more and more health-related data of their people, the informational balance will inevitably shift to the disadvantage of the general public.

There is no reason to be desperate, though. There are two ways to even the balance. We can either take off weight by turning back all the private data collection and governmental monitoring or we put some weight on our side.

This would mean that states, but also companies, have to become much more transparent in what they are doing. This, what we call freedom of information, already applies to a certain degree to democratic states and should be expanded over companies as well. Google and other companies should be obliged to disclose, in a clear and open manner, which of our data they collect, what they are using it for and to whom they sell it. Moreover, if data is sold, the user should participate in the selling.

Data-trusts and data-sharing obligations are examples of tools that enable individuals and small start-ups to compete with big tech companies. The collecting of private data doesn't necessarily mean we are not free. But to be free, an informational balance is necessary. Not least within the media. If media moguls like Rupert Murdoch play a notable role in forming opinion, in outbreaks of wars and even in elections, the time might have come to limit the size of media corporations and companies in general as freedom of the press doesn't pay without media pluralism.

Last year, Heiko Maas talked about Jamal Khashoggi and imprisoned journalists around the world. We should've listened because every shift in the informational balance can potentially lead to a shift in the power balance as well. That's why, whatever the world will look like after coronavirus; journalism, protests, theatre and even personal talks will play a major role in the changes yet to come.

Leo Rueck is a screenwriter and freelance journalist from Wiesbaden, Germany.

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Reclaiming our freedoms from big tech and government amid COVID-19

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