Notes from the Stockholm Internet Forum, II

Big data and privacy: Citizen awareness and ability to fight back

One of the big topics at the conference was how the right to privacy can be reconciled with increasing capabilities for surveillance, data collection and analysis by governments and corporations. The Swedish and American government representatives, the only government representatives at the conference, were quite elusive on this point, despite being met with rather tough questions from the audience. Unfortunately no companies were speaking at the panels.

The issue of privacy is perceived differently around the world, the concept doesn’t always exist in all local languages, and people also take different positions on how to balance privacy and national security. It is interesting to note that a recent Pew study showed big differences among Americans in their views and reactions to the Snowden revelations.

Some panelists also mentioned that in many parts of the world access to the internet was a more urgent issue than privacy which seemed more like the rich countries’ problem. However, poor people are probably more vulnerable as they lack digital skills. Many people the world over are not even aware of how their personal data is being collected and used. It is not always clear who owns the information, how rights of individuals can be protected and what the responsibilities of individuals who voluntarily offer information are.

In China people are very aware of the government’s pervasive surveillance, both old-fashioned and new on-line dito, that impact on their personal interactions, daily life, and ability to express themselves freely. This surveillance, fear and self-censorship is something that Murong Xuecan wrote eloquently about in an op-ed piece in New York Times last year. For a short summary of Chinese Internet surveillance see Reporters without borders report.

But whereas many Chinese citizens are aware of government surveillance and control on-line, why does privacy in relation to big companies and big data seem to be a non-issue in China? There is a growing interest in big data as witnessed in articles in the media, TV programmes, and books on the topic. China is also hosting several international conferences on big data. I have noted several books on the topics in Chinese bookstores over the past year, including many translated works.

s24574862Big data is seen as a lucrative business, and many Chinese companies are taking advantage of this new field, including Alibaba and China Unicom, whereas a poor province such as Guizhou is trying to profile itself as a big data center. While there are some more amusing examples of the use of big data, such as in the lucrative match-making business, big data has also provided useful social and logistic information as in Baidu’s real-time migration map during the the Chinese New Year.

The tone if often celebratory (see this TV report on Baidu) and concerns for privacy or that big data also entails dangers for individuals is seldom raised to my knowledge. One of the few critical voices I have found is that of Lei Jun, founder and CEO of Xiaomi, a popular smartphone manufacturer. He wants Chinese policymakers to speed up legislation on information security without however going into further details. In China Daily he is quoted as saying that: ‘China should put in place a sound mechanism to harness big data talent and funding for key research in the area. At the same time, it is also important for the various government arms to fully share their data so that social institutions can research it for better efficiency.’

The topic of big data and privacy in China, debates and visions among different actors including the government, corporations and citizens, awaits further research among scholars.

Civil society work: Mapping, developing and protecting freedom of speech on-line and off-line

Some of the more vocal and critical voices heard in Stockholm were those of activists and representatives of civil society organizations. There are several interesting civil society initiatives that aim to map and protect a free Internet and privacy on-line. The World Wide Web Foundation that I mentioned in my blog last year, is engaged in interesting work to map and visualize the Internet along different dimensions, including access, freedom and openness, and empowerment, and have gotten further in their work since last year. Their mapping and visualization of  how China fare on these accounts is very useful but I believe that some of the indicators also are open for debate and discussions (a topic that we should further explore in our project).

Another interesting organization is The Alliance for Affordable Internet that actually include organizations and actors from the public sector, private sector as well as NGOs. They work towards the realization of the UN Broadband Commission Broadband Target of entry-level broadband services priced at less than 5% of average monthly income. To this end they have also developed an affordability index and last year came out with a report outlining developments.

Many of the activists from South Asia and the Middle East, as well as representatives of civil society organization at the conference, stressed that if rights on the ground are not respected, we cannot expect them to be respected on-line either. This is of course of particular salience in a country such as China where freedom of speech is precarious both off-line and on-line. There are two important anniversaries in China this year. One took place in April and was the 20th anniversary of China’s connection to the Internet. This anniversary was much discussed in the Chinese media, and most reports focused on the positive aspects of Internet for connectivity and economic development. The second anniversary occurs on June 4th, when the Chinese military 25 years ago cracked down on peaceful demonstrations in Beijing. For a good multimedia multimedia scrap book of videos, voice recordings and pictures of the Tiananmen protest and crackdown see South China Morning Post. Although it has now been 25 years, the topic is still taboo on-line and off-line in China. There have thus been arrests of participants at private meetings commemorating June 4th, whereas on-line expressions and comments are rapidly deleted and Google search engine and Gmail is not possible to access in the round-up to the anniversary. Despite commemorations in Hong Kong and elsewhere, and calls from UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay to release those detained and make an investigation of what happened on June 4th 1989, the Chinese government remains silent on the topic.

We also in general see continuing official control over social media sites and apps. In August last year a campaign targeting so-called rumors on-line and opinion leaders on weibo was launched, and on 28 May the Chinese government announced a month long campaign targeting mobile phone messaging platforms. This is the first campaign targeting this type of technology and it should not come as a surprise since WeChat  has rapidly become the preferable tool of communication.

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