When we think of the Internet through WikiLeaks and Arab Spring or NSA, its “transparency” starts to appear with a dual meaning, which leads to more nuanced discussions about the role of the Internet in this world.
It is certainly true that WikiLeaks showed how much transparent the world in the digital age could be, in other words, how hackers can decrypt confidential information that would have been kept secret without the Internet, or how it is becoming more and more true that “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow”. Then, we also realized that this “no secret” rule applied to the privacy of Internet users. In the latter case, it is private corporations and governments, who get information about “us”. We were shocked by what NSA was doing through Internet, but it was shocking just because NSA was an American governmental institution.
We all know that similar kinds of information control have been existed in some countries and served as modern “panopticism”, using the mechanism that, as Rebecca Mackinnon put it in her book, “when people have unspecific knowledge that surveillance is happening at least some of the time, without clear information about exactly how and when the surveillance is taking place, against whom, and according to what specific criteria, people will choose to avoid trouble and modify their behavior in ways that are often subtle and even subconscious.” In this case, Internet is a tool for authoritarian regime for their “surveillance”.
“Web as platform”, the catch copy of Web 2.0, was at the same time an opening to the totally transparent world, as more and more information is stored “online”. On the other hand, people networked through Facebook and Twitter made massive social mobilization possible in Arab Spring in a short period of time. So, Evgeny Morozov says that questions such as “Is the Internet good or bad?” or “Does Internet promote democracy” are ridiculous because “it forces us to think of the Internet and social change in terms that are free of humans, governments, ideology, power, impurity, and, above all, politics.” His argument is that too much generalization is often made when we discuss the Internet and democracy.
In a same context, Rebecca Mackinnon explains, what is now missing is the “accountability” and “the reality is that the corporations and governments that build, operate, and govern cyberspace are not being held sufficiently accountable for their exercise of power over the lives and identities of people who use digital networks. They are sovereigns operating without the consent of the networked”. In other words, there is no clear “bargain” here, referring to the three basic factors of successful network pointed out by Clay Shirky: Promise, Tool and Bargain.
This is a big issue, because here, what we are questioning is not the “Promise, Tool and Bargain” offered from an individual network or website to you, but from the Internet itself. However, we know that the Internet is not an entity who need or can offer those things. Normally, it is the corporations running websites, who should be held accountable, however, things get complicated as the issue of sovereignty comes in. When the accountability of private corporations and that of a sovereign country mixed up, we still don’t know how to deal with it. Some countries like Germany start thinking about setting up German Internet, to seal its data off from the rest of the country, to keep their sovereignty, although no one knows if this is something meaningful or not.