Civil society

Reset: Reclaiming the Internet for Civil Society

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by Ronald J. Deibert

Trying to determine a through line of broad historical periods is at best a fraught endeavour. But if there is a single driving idea of the 20th and 21st centuries, it might well be simply “more.” The movement toward more seems to define everything from the eventual global domination of liberal capitalism to the post-1968 liberation of libidinal desire. More is better.

Few arenas seem to exemplify this lust for ever-expanding growth better than the web. The rise of the internet has been defined by more: more choice, more information, more freedom, but also more surveillance, more distraction, more heat and acrimony.

In his new book, political science professor Ronald J. Deibert suggests that the incessant push toward more online needs a simple but powerful countermeasure: restraint. The book is based on the 2020 CBC Massey Lectures and is structured into two major parts. The first – and much more expansive – is an outline of the dizzying array of things that have gone wrong with the ubiquity of the digital in our lives. Second – and much shorter – is a suggestion for how we might fix things.

The first four chapters each tackle a specific aspect of our newly digital lives: the economics of social media, the interaction of technology and the structure of human psychology, the linkage of technology and authoritarian governance, and the environmental toll of everything from smartphones to Google searches.

Reading that first section is as illuminating as it is terrifying and leaves one feeling a bit shell-shocked. Deibert heads up the Citizen Lab, a University of Toronto–affiliated research centre that focuses on technology, security, and human rights. That perspective gives him a unique vantage point into the digital world, almost comparable to the head of an intelligence agency. In stark, lucid, and quite plain terms, Deibert outlines the way the stunning pace at which social media and smartphones have spread around the world has produced a kind of “digital exhaust” – reams of data that can be used to track individuals and prey on or predict their behaviour. Not only is our psychology and wellbeing affected by technology, our addiction to our devices is also monetized.

Drawing on the work of Shoshana Zuboff, who coined the term “surveillance capitalism,” Deibert points to both the deep financial incentives involved in tracking users online and also the way they can go awry. Pointing to our current moment of COVID-19 as a sort of accelerant, he argues “the devices, networks, and cloud computing systems on which nearly everyone is now forced to rely while in isolation were never built with complete security in mind, and they provide a gold mine of intelligence data for states and other nefarious actors.”

Among the most shocking examples of this is Deibert’s description of the murder of exiled Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the manner in which anyone targeted by authoritarian regimes can  be tracked and apprehended – or worse – beyond what was once the safety of national borders. The regime of digital surveillance, Deibert convincingly argues, has been a boon for authoritarianism, from the tight control of Russia or China to the rightward shift in the U.S. to the illicit use of surveillance tech here in Canada by the RCMP. As detailed in the book, Deibert’s Citizen Lab itself has been the target of hackers and state actors alike, including an in-person spy-vs.-spy episode involving NSO, a notorious Israeli intelligence company made up of former Mossad members. It would read a bit like an espionage thriller were it not so real and genuinely scary.

For a book loaded with detail and technical explanation that delves into some deeply worrying territory, however, the text moves along at a steady clip, its roots as a lecture series making it approachable and lively even for those unfamiliar with technology.

Still, all told, it is an overwhelming and sometimes demoralizing read. As Deibert writes, “it’s as if we have sleepwalked into a new machine based civilization of our own making, and we are just now waking up to its unforeseen consequences and existential risks.” It is that sense of inevitability that leads Deibert to land on the concept of restraint as the way to get to the titular reset so necessary for the digital world. Deibert puts forth the original definitions of both liberalism and republicanism as a necessary grounding ideology. Each, unlike the attitudes espoused by present-day Liberals in Canada or Republicans in the U.S., is focused on the rule of law and mechanisms of restraint. These include limitations such as regulating how tech companies operate (an exemplary move is that of WhatsApp putting up barriers to spreading misinformation), breaking up tech companies or initiating similar antitrust moves, and developing a new role for the state in the digital infrastructure of life.

One wishes that perhaps less time had been spent on outlining the problems and more on delving into solutions, given that the former is now widely accepted and the latter so poorly understood. And the recourse to both liberalism and republicanism may not fully account for how and why digital capitalism seems to have so thoroughly co-opted those once noble ideals, or recognize that they may not in fact be worth saving.

All the same, Reset is a shocking call to action and a persuasively argued book. It is the sort of text one hopes will be read widely, and in particular taught in post-secondary courses. After all, a reset of the basic infrastructure of life will only come through a profound political reckoning – and like the foment of 1968, it may just be a reconceptualization of what we want and why we want it that finally drives change.