"The net that we are building should be a net of possibility, but it is not. It is a net of surveillance." was Mishi Choudhary's and Eben Moglen's assertion in their opening keynote on the morning of the first day on the main stage. The internet that was supposed to make education and knowledge globally accessible has not given rise to social justice, and is not improving our democracy. On the contrary: It is helping cement despotism and autocracy.
Why? The speakers both see the fault lying mainly with social media. Social platforms store every little bit of information for all eternity, every interaction we users undertake turn us into digital lab rats – the results of this experiment are advertising which is tailor-made for the users and then sold for profit.
Another problem is the atmosphere that social media creates. The original hope that the internet would promote democracy and education has given way to a reality of self-obsession and jealousy. Users show how enviable their lives are through platforms like Twitter, Snapchat, Facebook and others. Unpleasant moments are simply blocked out. This creates mutual jealousy, which expresses itself through hate comments and a poisonous atmosphere online.
But this mass of data that the social networks are collecting can be used for more than just generating advertising: States are also interested in this data as it presents a perfect depiction of the social realties of their citizens. Social media then becomes a wolf in sheep's clothing: Instead of an individualized advertising medium, it becomes a huge surveillance system, through which the state can better control and monitor civilian communication.
The only way to escape this internet prison and retain our civic freedom? According to Moglen and Choudhary, the answer is to create a completely encrypted internet in which the individual users cannot be traced. Our generation is closing in on the internet as a perfect instrument of surveillance. And this means that it is the last generation that has a chance to develop an encrypted internet.
Image: re:publica/Jan Zappner (CC BY 2.0)