Instead of freeing us, the internet is making us conform

Digital freedom
4 mins
A regular man, except with a devil's tale, walks along with a telephone.

The fact that we’re far less likely to engage in deviant behavior if we think we’re being watched isn’t a new discovery.

In 2012, a group of researchers from the University of Newcastle in the UK used simple signage in three spots on campus that had an extremely high prevalence of bike theft. The signs featured a pair of eyes along with prominent statements suggesting that the area was now under surveillance.

The net result? A 62% decrease in overall theft in each of those three locations.

While I’m all for using technology to promote the public interest and reduce criminal acts, the reality is that surveillance may have a far more chilling effect on our behavior than initially thought.

A new study seeking to examine the relationship between mass surveillance and online opinion found that people tend to suppress their true beliefs if they think their opinions constitute a minority view.

Far from just stopping illegal acts, mass surveillance may compel us to mold our behavior to please the majority.

Again, maybe this discovery isn’t exactly new. “Democracy in America,” a 19th-century treatise written by French sociologist Alexis de Tocqueville, warns about the “tyranny of the majority”—a scenario where public opinion comprehensively overshadows minorities and those holding unpopular views.

Tocqueville was a fervent admirer of American individualism, but he felt that its characteristics could lead to a society where all citizens would, paradoxically, try their best to be like each other. And while he died far before mass surveillance took effect, his words could have been a prophecy of what was to follow.

The Snowden effect

The internet was designed to foster community and bring people closer together. It aimed to promote free speech, cast aside authoritarianism, eradicate barriers to information, and allow people to engage in meaningful debate online.

Events such as the Arab Spring of 2011, also known as the “Twitter revolution,” gave us a glimpse of how powerful online communities had become. Even repressive governments with monopolies on the instruments of violence couldn’t prevent mass uprisings organized purely via social media.

Whether social media actually helps democracy and reduces tyranny is a topic for another day, but it’s pertinent to note that the events of the Arab Spring haven’t exactly resulted in stronger democratic institutions in the Middle East.

On the other hand, just a couple of years after the Arab Spring, the bombshell Snowden revelations of mass surveillance in the U.S. and, potentially, around the world, confirmed our darkest fears. The internet wasn’t the safe haven we had thought it to be.

So how did Snowden’s disclosure impact online behavior? According to Jon Penney, a former fellow at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, there was a drastic decline in Wikipedia searches for terrorism-related keywords such as Al Qaeda, chemical weapon, and jihad.

The researcher documented that the searches were declining even a year after the end of the study. And given the lack of evidence for punishment or prosecution for trying to access such information, Penney declared that it was unlikely that the fear of prosecution was a reason behind the decline. The explanation he offered was “self-censorship.”

Bruce Schneier, of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Government and International Affairs, has stated that “the fact that you won’t do things, that you will self-censor, are the worst effects of pervasive surveillance.”

Welcome the panopticon effect, with slightly modified tools.

It’s the surveillance, stupid

Some of this behavior is simply human nature. We’re political animals, as Aristotle declared in fourth century BC. We gravitate towards social acceptance and community. Most of us don’t seek to be exclusionary and are far happier when accepted by others. Hence, if we knew that an unknown entity was tracking our every move, we’d do a lot more to be perceived as ‘normal’ and just like anybody else.

But Penney’s findings are far more troubling because they point to a situation where the boundaries of debate are being arbitrarily delineated. It’s okay to argue over whether the Kardashians are useful for society, but not a word against the government. And if you step out of line, rest assured that the algorithms will catch you.

The decentralization of the internet and the lack of a controlling node was a key facet in the development of the web by its original founders. The fact that they didn’t patent the idea and chose to forgo profits speaks volumes to their intention of building strong, global societies in an environment free from repression and retribution.

The internet today is a far cry from the non-commercial ideals of those who gave birth to it. Net neutrality is a thing of the past, unlikely to ever return. Walled-off internet networks, selective in the information and apps they allow, are more common than open and free ones. Surveillance is so ubiquitous that we’ve taken a passive view of it, almost to the point that it doesn’t bother us anymore.

Our future is only more devices, not fewer. More facial scanners, surveillance cameras, IoT devices, and smarter machine learning algorithms to complement them. Intelligent cities. What happens then? Blind adherence to unspoken ideals? Apolitical citizenry? Uniformity of thought?

Rather than encouraging and promoting diversity, the internet may end up silencing it. And that’s a future we should be worried about.

I like to think about the impact that the internet has on humanity. In my free time, I'm wolfing down pasta.