Occupy the Net!

Our Internet is a paradise for consumers but a hell for citizens.

This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.

What would George Orwell make of Facebook? Nothing really: His account would probably be deactivated by the company. If he were lucky, he would be told to produce a scanned first page of his passport and return as Eric Blair.

Salman Rushdie
Salman Rushdie

Photograph by Jerod Harris/Getty Images.

When it comes to pseudonyms, Facebook is more egalitarian than the early Soviet Union. You may be rich or famous or persecuted, but unless you use your real name when you register on the site, you’re asking for trouble—and Facebook will torture you with Kafkaesque gusto. Last year, it suspended the account of the jailed Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, asking him to email—from a prison in Siberia!—a copy of his ID. His crime? None. More recently, Salman Rushdie has been told that he can exist on the site only as Ahmed Rushdie—or embrace the life of virtual obscurity elsewhere. Facebook eventually gave in—but only after Rushdie declared war on Mark Zuckerberg. Alas, not everyone has that option.

That Facebook’s stance on pseudonyms may be entrenching autocracies doesn’t seem to bother the company in the least. In fact, the Chinese edition of the “Facebook Revolution” bears all the markings of an anti-revolution: Facebook has been criticized for deactivating the account of the prominent Internet activist who goes by the pseudonym of Michael Anti. In Egypt, Facebook was precariously close to clipping the wings of the future revolutionaries when it suspended the Facebook page started by the Google executive Wael Ghonim, who, of course, was also using a pseudonym.

Of course, every company has a stupid policy or two, and Facebook is no exception. However, its stance on pseudonyms is more than a stupid policy. It’s part and parcel of Facebook’s noxious vision for the future of the Internet, where privacy—rather than hard-earned cash—becomes the currency of the day. And Facebook’s monetary policy runs on just one simple idea: You can either give up your privacy and embrace the world of entertainment abundance—or you can fight to protect it and risk living in entertainment poverty. You choose.

This is not to say that privacy is bad currency. On the contrary, it buys products that money can’t buy. What can compete with the seemingly infinite libraries of music available from streaming services like Spotify? Nothing—but try getting there today without a Facebook account and you would not advance very far: Spotify demands that new users already have an existing Facebook account—which they can’t get unless they are prepared to register on Facebook with their real names! This is how listening to music anonymously becomes deviant; gradually, it may also become technologically difficult and expensive. Reading anonymously doesn’t look deviant yet—but things will change as we bypass public libraries and start borrowing books from Amazon and Barnes & Noble. The former would never think of selling our data to third parties; the latter wouldn’t think twice about it. In fact, they would give us coupons for sharing our reading habits.

All of this is part of Silicon Valley’s grand bargain to make consumption as networked and transparent as possible. And it works: All too often we buy things recommended to us by our online friends—and immediately tell them what it is we have bought, creating feedback loops that make concepts like “conspicuous consumption” seem inadequate. In this new data-rich economy, services like Facebook emerge as powerful intermediaries that track our most intimate thoughts, anxieties, and aspirations—from cradle to grave—and that go on to cash in on such intimacies via targeted advertising. Given their line of business, social networking sites need users with pseudonyms as badly as banks need toxic assets: Such users demand costly maintenance and scare away valuable business partners. They won’t be missed.

As the age-old battle between citizens and consumers moves online, it becomes possible to make out the contours of an Internet optimized for consumption. This Internet is fully transparent (e.g., all of our activities are observed, recorded, and analyzed with a view of predicting our future behavior), highly efficient (e.g., everything is organized and stored for us; all of it is findable within seconds), and extremely reliable (everything is interconnected but backed-up; cybercrime disappears along with pseudonyms).

It is also stifling, boring, and intolerable. A paradise for consumers, this Internet is also a hell for citizens. After all, why bother recommending a copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four to Eric Blair if George Orwell can’t even get online to promote it? (And promote it he must: Few modern authors can afford to ignore Facebook—for many, it’s the one and only destination on their cheap, sad, and angry virtual book tour.)

It’s time that citizens articulate a vision for a civic Internet that could compete with the dominant corporatist vision. Do we want to preserve anonymity to help dissidents or do we want to eliminate it so that corporations stop worrying about cyber-attacks? Do we want to build new infrastructure for surveillance—hoping it will lead to a better shopping experience—that would be abused by data-hungry governments? Do we want to enhance serendipitous discovery, to ensure exposure to new and controversial ideas, to maximize our ability to think critically about what we see and read on the Net? Or do we want to build computers that would conduct autonomous searches on our behalf—only to pitch us the latest sales deals, recommend restaurants in the neighborhood, and feed us one answer instead of many? Do we want the Internet to remember everything that happens online, or do we want to introduce some noise and decay into our digital archives as they—and we—age? Those who view the Net as a giant digital Sears catalog want no such decay—but those of us who see it as a partial diary of an imperfect civilization surely welcome it.

Oddly enough, the political institutions needed to act on such a civic vision are forming even before the requisite ideology is in place; the electoral success of the Pirate Parties across parts of Europe is an encouraging sign. But most such movements are simultaneously too radical and not radical enough. It’s not just geeks and tech-savvy young people who need to think hard about what an alternative civic Internet may look like; for such visions to have any purchase on society, they need to originate from (and incorporate) much broader swathes of the population. And the debates cannot focus solely on the thorny questions of copyright reform and the legalization of file-sharing—the main focus of such movements—for unresolved digital problems are much more numerous.

In fact, there is hardly any aspect of political life—in domestic and foreign policy alike—that would not be affected by the Net. Finding a way to articulate a critical stance on these issues before technology giants like Facebook usurp public imagination with their talk of “frictionless sharing” should be top priority for anyone concerned with the future of democracy. A paradise for citizens and a purgatory for consumers: That’s the Internet we can believe in! Occupy the Net, anyone?