Time to rethink how the internet is financed

It is easy to collect personal data, but difficult to keep them safe; everyone wants them and they are hackable.

Time to rethink how the internet is financed
Now is the time to reassess how the Internet is being financed. Photo by Kenny Eliason / Unsplash

The data that we as users leave behind when using the Internet are toxic assets, because they expose us to personal security risks, to the possibility of being extorted and discriminated against, said Carissa Véliz Perales, professor of Philosophy and Ethics at Oxford University.

While giving the conference "Privacy, artificial intelligence and democracy in the digital era", organized by the Institute of Philosophical Research of the UNAM, she stressed that in the digital era it is necessary to keep our information safe to protect ourselves and preserve the health of democracies.

Ignoring the link between privacy, artificial intelligence and democracy is one of the reasons why we are facing democratic problems today. Personal data was often thought of as something purely technical or legal, but not ethical or political.

In the same way, the privacy of information that identifies us was considered as something extra, a luxury, or a personal preference, narratives that suited technology companies.

Recently, at least two important world-changing issues have occurred. In Mexico, the Supreme Court of Justice of the Nation ruled that the National Registry of Mobile Phone Users is unconstitutional, considering that it represented a risk to the right to privacy and intimacy.

"This is important since the risk was that they had all the personal information of the population: fiscal, financial, etc., registered in databases that nobody knows for sure how secure they would be since these large 'warehouses' are vulnerable to hacking, which puts extremely sensitive information at risk and this is even more so when living in a country with high insecurity such as Mexico", she added.

The other issue has to do with the new owner of Twitter: Elon Musk, who has just bought this social-digital network. "One might wonder what this has to do with privacy or artificial intelligence, as we are used to perceiving this platform as something ethereal and abstract."

The company's business model is to sell its users' data to banks, insurers, governments, and other companies that, in turn, resell it and can be used for almost anything.

Like any other social network and website, it is based on the popular and functional artificial intelligence that is machine learning, which works based on enormous amounts of information, to determine which post will be published first and display ads based on user preferences.

Its relationship with democracy is too much, since there are studies that show how toxic discourse, and in particular fake news, decreased substantially on Twitter after the permanent suspension of former President Donald Trump from the App.

Likewise, Elon Musk bought Twitter without any democratic process even though this platform has become a kind of public square. Its new owner has a certain philosophy about free speech and has decided that anyone can express anything, which could have an impact on democracy in the United States, Mexico, and other countries.

According to the expert, every piece of personal data that an institution collects is a weak point; it constitutes a potential lawsuit, hacking or information leakage. "In reality, they create their own risk because it is easy to collect personal data, but difficult to keep it secure, because everyone wants it and it is hackable, but they are also toxic because they expose us as a society to serious damage, such as the erosion of equality because neither women nor men are treated as equals, they are shown the best-paid ads, for example".

Websites and social networks gather innumerable information about their users: who they are, where they work, who makes up their family, what illnesses they suffer from, what they search for online, "even where we are at any given moment".

Today, it would be extremely difficult to fight a totalitarian regime with the information that technology has collected about us; the moment you contact someone the government knows. "We are building a surveillance architecture that anyone can breach at a time when democracy in the world is not at its strongest," Véliz Perales pointed out.

Various measures, both in terms of legislation and technology design, are required for the protection of personal data. However, if the Internet business model were different, there would be no incentive for people to be hooked as long as possible to its contents, mainly fake news.

The expert comments that if there were legislation that would put privacy first if the economy of personal data were prohibited, it would be more difficult to make these information ghettos and there would be no algorithms that generate that people stay as long as possible so that the type of content that would be favored would be different.

The level of toxicity of some data is high, so they should be out of the market. In addition, he expressed his disagreement with having a business model based on the systematic and massive violation of rights, as personal data should not be sold or bought, as we do not buy or sell people and votes.

"It is time to rethink how the Internet is financed and which business models are compatible with democracy. What we decide today, the laws that pass today, will determine our political and social life, as well as our ethics in the next two or three decades", concluded Carissa Véliz.