Internet, freedom of speech and privacy

I attended a very interesting workshop which in some ways was an eye opener. The workshop was hosted by IDRC and presented by the team from CIS. It had a very unique title- Identity, Censorship & Freedom of expression in India. From the title of the workshop I had no idea that I will be learning things about patents, Darknet and silk road, mobile factories in Shenzhen and much more.

First was on  believing in freedom of expression. For most of us it means ” my right to express my views”. But if we were really believe in freedom of expression then we should be up in arms to defend the right of freedom of expression of those  who we disagree with. This is seldom understood and seldom practiced.  Everyone wants to shout and  want others to shut up.Voltaire wrote, I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it. Defending speech that you disagree with is believing in freedom of speech.

The other interesting discussion was on electronic surveillance. We all know that surveillance is important for national security. But how much surveillance is necessary?. No one seems to agree other than the americans who spy on everyone other than the Chinese ( the Chinese have a efficient government to do the job). So at what point increasing surveillance diminishes national security?. The speaker illustrated this with a gastronomical example. Surveillance is like salt in food- too little is not effective, too much can spoil the whole dish- it has to be right. Is anyone listening 🙂

And who should be under surveillance ?

In our society people/state limbs  who are powerful and can cause maximum damage should be under more surveillance. Similarly with privacy too. The weak should have more privacy; the powerful should have less privacy. Our state and society does exactly the opposite ? A familiar pattern across the world.

The other exploding on your face kind of fact was that in a typical smartphone there are more than 35000 patents. So if you are manufacturer of a mobile phone in lets say China or India then imagine the amount of complexity involved in getting approval from each patent holder.  In India the wind seem to be flowing towards having device level patent pool so that manufacturers can easily manufacture these devices. Factories in Shenzhen give you a menu card with 2000 options and you can order the phone as you like as long as it is more than 4000 units.

However the icing on the cake was information about Darknet- that side of net which is not accessible through regular search engines and browsers and how there was a ” market place” called the silk road which was recently shut down by FBI. It was quite thrilling to know that there are secret societies on the internet who are doing their own thing and away from everywhere.

In discussion like these Big data cannot be far behind. We discussed ways in which big data can be used to make our life easier for instance in urban planning and transportation.Someone shared the example of how google searches on the internet can predict the outbreak of a disease  2 weeks before centre of disease control, USA can predict it. The beauty of big data is that now you can lay your hands on the whole universe and not just the sample. What a treat for researchers and designers. But in the wrong hands it can be very dangerous. There is a German politician who explained through a very interactive video on how we are getting betrayed by our own data. Check the video here The trouble is that we are giving our data all of the time and most of us are not even aware of it.

In the end the discussion came down to as to who own our digital shadow ? Can we have the right to  restrict people from having access to it?  Why can’t facebook ask me every time they run an algorithm to show me adverts? Whose property is my digital shadow?  Currently it seems like everyone owns a piece of my digital self other than myself. We deliberated on what kind of laws might be needed to give us what is rightly ours. We may never see them in our lifetime.

The discussion ended on some nice Pizzas and my resolve the previous night of being a Vegan went down the drain. Thank God until now I have not left any digital trail of it.



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