This article is part of the Democracy Futures series, a joint global initiative between The Conversation and the Sydney Democracy Network. The project aims to stimulate fresh thinking about the many challenges facing democracies in the 21st century.
Imagine China takes down its national internet blocking system – aka the Great Firewall – tomorrow. Will this affect how you use the internet?
Without the Great Firewall, Facebook and Google will grow exponentially in China. Before long, the tech giants own a sizeable share of the Chinese market and have become good buddies with Beijing.
This scenario unfolds at a time when Donald Trump’s inward-looking policy upsets Silicon Valley’s efforts to expand its global empire, and when the US Congress further deregulates the internet industry, allowing internet service providers (ISPs), for example, to collect and trade user’s private data. So the tech giants decide to go to bed with China.
What does this have to do with you using your smartphone in, say, Sydney?
Well, if you have a Facebook presence, it means your social network information may now be used in a few additional ways, without your knowledge. Perhaps a few China-bashing news items, shared by your friends, will disappear from your news feed. And if you rely on Google, YouTube, Amazon or Uber, the data you accumulate during your daily routines may now empower not just the Little Sisters (that is, advertising companies), but also Big Brother himself.
According to urban geographer and unionist Kurt Iveson, surveillance cameras at the University of Sydney generate half of the internet traffic on campus. All the research, the paperwork, the social media back-and-forth, the videos people watch and the online games and music they play, all this online traffic, when added together, barely matches the terabytes of information generated by the surveillance feed.
That’s a pretty big achievement for those tiny cameras looking down at you in the corridors and from the street lamps.
The ‘big’ in Big Brother and Big Data
China has big ambitions. Its interests and investments in infrastructure on a global scale are well known. It will only be a matter of time before Beijing realises that digital assets are as vital, perhaps even more valuable, than highways and airports.
The Chinese Communist Party already has a good record of endorsing corporate platforms in the New Economy. Last November, China embraced the “disruptive” innovation of Uber and similar services. It became the first country to legalise the smartphone ride-hailing business on a national scale.
In response to the warm embrace, Uber praised China as:
… a country that has consistently shown itself to be forward-thinking when it comes to business innovation.
Now you probably see why Silicon Valley might want to divorce Trump and have an affair behind Tiananmen.
Your digital rights
Maybe it’s not such a good idea, after all, to hastily agree to whatever terms and conditions tech companies hand down to you in tedious fine print. You don’t know your rights. You don’t know who has your data. But do you care?
As an individual, your power is limited. Using a virtual private network (VPN) can be a good start, but which VPN service can you really trust? This is a pertinent question because what if the VPN you use turns out to be a honeypot collecting data about you?
Your best shot, then, is to join a movement – such as a citizen group – to raise awareness or a watchdog organisation that guards against the mishandling of private data by telecommunication companies.
Other good places to seek refuge and spread the good word include non-government organisations that promote solidarity with IT-sector workers and hacker groups who develop new crypto technology. You don’t have to know programming or coding to join them, as even the best hackers will need other kinds of help.
Cities like Sydney have many such organisations. Plenty of folks are working on digital rights issues. Join them to protect your data from being infringed by Big Brother, his Little Sisters, and even telcos and ISPs.
Even if China doesn’t plan to take down its Great Firewall any time soon, that doesn’t make protecting your own data – personal information that reveals so much about your life – any less important.
As long as you have signed over your rights to corporations, they can still sell out big to Beijing, Moscow or whoever else is peeping from afar, at this very moment, into your campus or workplace CCTV system.
Authors: Jack Linchuan Qiu, Professor, School of Journalism and Communication, Chinese University of Hong Kong