09 July, 2014

Puppy eyes versus freedom

With fund raising campaigns running for Krita and the Randa meetings, I've been thinking about charity. My wife told me she wanted to donate to a group of people doing really awesome work for animals. Which is great. Collectively, we spend billions on good causes like that. According to forbes the top-5 charities in the USA alone rack in USD 44 billion in revenue per year. I've gathered a few more numbers:

Organization Purpose Budget (USD)
Salvation Army (just USA) Fight poverty >4.1 billion
WWF (Netherlands) Protect animals 78 million
a Donkey home in the UK Protect donkeys 55 million
Electronic Frontier Foundation Protect online communication 3.2 million
Free Software Foundation Enable Free computing 1.2 million
Amnesty International Protect Free Speech 60 million

From the numbers, I get the distinct impression that we, as in the wider community of Internet Users (that's over half the world population), don't do a very impressive job at protecting what made the internet fun, interesting, useful and above all - free.

I want my kids to have food and shelter, even if they bump into some bad luck in life. Diseases like cancer are worth fighting and we've adopted a dog from the animal shelter in Berlin. But I also want my kids to not have to fear government surveillance or persecution for what they say or think (or are!). And have access to the knowledge and information we've gathered, as humanity.

Unfortunately, the fight for Free Speech is old and is today loosing ground. More and more countries are censoring communication, blocking internet traffic for various reasons. Efforts like ownCloud are great, but not successful enough (yet).

I think we've got a problem here. We fail at protecting our online freedom but the wider public cares very little about these fundamental values. A lot of it is probably due to lack of knowledge and the complexities of the matter, as John Oliver explained in the video below. Or, as I'd like to put it, Freedom doesn't have cute ears and puppy eyes.

Value of freedom online

At some point, this failure is going to impact our real lives. Facebook already knows your political and sexual orientation and that information is dangerously interesting for governments and companies. Even more the ability to influence people if you have access to (and control over!) their online communication. Facebook proved in a recent paper that they could manipulate people's emotions through their news feed. Next is to make you (dis)like certain products, politicians and so on.

In case you were wondering: this, unfortunately, is no science fiction. Advertising works, but as any psychologist can tell you, it is not that strong and you can compensate for it. Our brains take the 'information' coming in from advertisement for second grade information: in case of conflict, it is immediately overridden by more important knowledge. Like what your friends think about something.

Unfortunately, more and more you read what your friends say about things on Google, Facebook and other online media. And they have figured out that using your friends to advertise things to you is terribly effective. Invisibly manipulating the time line on social media like Facebook (just show positive mentions about $PoliticalParty 5% longer, negative ones 5% less) can easily make and break elections. Right now, you still have to buy a senator, something at least a little visible...

Going wrong?

So there's the problem: these companies control our communication and can manipulate it, even without outright censorship. Your negative opinion expressed online about $POLITICIAN simply won't show in other people's feeds. Or only in the feeds of those who would disagree anyway, and will comment negatively, so you won't say that next time. Propaganda refined to perfection!

1984 was a world that was obviously wrong. In 2014 we've learned that it just won't be that obvious - but not any less wrong.

How are we going to solve this?