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input#14/ Towards an Internet Social Forum?
Sally Burch

At the 2015 World Social Forum in Tunis, a proposal was presented to organize an Internet Social Forum (ISF), with the idea of promoting a process of regional and global debate and action agendas, concerning the challenges of our present and future digitalized societies. The proposal gained the support of more than 80 organizations and was acknowledged by the International Council. @1 While (for various reasons) the ISF has yet to materialize as a face-to-face event, a number of initiatives have already taken place in this framework, among others in Latin America .

As digitalization penetrates more and more areas of our societies, it is likely to impact most aspects of the agendas defined by social and political movements, bringing new challenges and often new problems. As Roberto Savio notes, “the Internet has changed the character of political participation.” The issues at stake are not just about communication or the invasion of privacy, nor do they only relate to the Internet. The rapid transition towards an economy based on data and (artificial) intelligence , under the present model of development, will mean an unprecedented transfer of power to megacorporations that will possess detailed intelligence about almost every aspect of our lives, enabling them to generate unlimited profit and social control.@2 This is sometimes referred to as surveillance capitalism. We urgently need to address the implications of this societal transformation and build alternatives.

This transition is already transforming—often negatively—employment, agriculture, education, media, democratic process, personal and social relations, local commerce and international trade and an endless range of other areas. To mention a few examples: as the Internet and its main platforms have become increasingly monopolized by huge international corporations, following their own interests, we have lost control of the spaces we occupy for even our most personal communications and interrelations. In most countries, especially in the global South, we have little or no control of what data is extracted from us or how, nor of who uses it for what purposes. The companies that profit from it often go unregulated and untaxed. And the latest free trade agreements and proposed e-commerce negotiations in the World Trade Organizationare designed to make this state of affairs permanent.

Exploitation of personal data and social networking platforms to manipulate voters on the part of political actors and organizations—mainly those with greater access to resources—is a direct threat to democratic coexistence. Platforms like Uber, AirBnB, or Amazon are transforming people’s vehicles, homes, or the goods produced by small companies into commodities for their own profit ( a new form of enclosure ). Farmers are becoming increasingly dependent on corporations that provide artificial intelligence to boost their productivity, with the ensuing loss of autonomy, local knowledge and biodiversity. Moreover, tech companies with robot-controlled farm-factories are starting to control the whole production chain from seed to supermarket. In education , machines are replacing teachers or downgrading them to the role of assistants, in a process of increasing privatization of the school curriculum.

Artificial intelligence, despite its huge potential to improve many aspects of our lives, tends to replicate and reinforce the inequalities and discrimination already present in society and, as its algorithms become more complex, it is ever less transparent. 5G technology is the basis for implementing the Internet of Things that is likely eliminate any remnants of privacy we still have. Moreover, plans to implement, millions of 5G antennas across an increasing number of cities, as well as low orbit satellites, are going ahead without the necessary studies of the impact on human health and well-being and on plant and animal life (particularly birds and insects).  Cyptocurrencies are likely to transfer monetary control to the private sector. The use of cyber technologies for warfare could have devastating consequences and create new global power imbalances. They have already been used to attack civilian technology, such as electricity supplies, which could bring warfare to a new level. Autonomous weapons that can decide who to kill are an even greater threat.

A People’s Internet

These are just a few examples of the challenges we are facing with the digitalization of everything under the dominant corporate-controlled model. But it is not the only model: there are many initiatives developing a more decentralized and people-controlled model.@3 However, changing the power balance will require a huge concerted effort on the part of people’s movements, legislators, governments, and even part of the private sector.

@4 Public policies and private investment could contribute to encouraging further development of an Internet based on platforms and technologies that are controlled and managed mainly by the people for the people and their communities. @5 Many such technologies already exist, but most lack the financial power to compete effectively with the commercial platforms; and most users lack the awareness and knowhow to make the change.

Probably the most central issue to address is control of data: who owns it, who can store it where, who decides how it can be used for what ends. A debate is already underway around the concept that individuals and communities should have control of the data they generate and be able to decide about its use and who it should benefit. @6 This also contemplates the idea that data (apart from intimate personal data) should be considered part of the commons. This would require collective decision-making, since individuals are practically powerless in the face of the present corporate structures. It will call for a concerted effort of legislation, public policies, and safe technologies.  Anti-trust legislation needs to be updated, and breakup of the big internet monopolies and/or their conversion into public services should certainly be considered. The breakup of Facebook, for example, has already been proposed in the United States Congress, home country of the main internet corporations.

Regulation of artificial intelligence is urgent, though complex. This is already in debate, and even business corporations are discussing ethical guidelines (but of course, as in many other areas, voluntary guidelines for business are not enough). Issues under consideration include how to ensure transparency; how to assign responsibility for decisions made that cause harm; guarantees that AI is oriented in the public interest; or proposals that companies that generate profit from developing it must give back a portion of that profit to the communities that provide the data in the form of taxes or services, etc. Laws are needed to protect the digital and knowledge commons and to balance intellectual property with the need to encourage creators, not simply to increase the monopoly profit of large corporations.

@7 A new framework is required for global Internet governance, possibly within a democratic United Nations framework, with an equal voice for all countries and opportunities for the citizenry and people’s organizations to make input to decision-making.

Next steps

These are some examples of the debates and actions that are urgent to address, since the model is advancing very rapidly and imposing its own de facto framework that it will be harder to break once consolidated.@8  Some of these ideas may be polemical; no doubt there are contradictions (such as how much power to give governments, for handling data and AI, when many people don’t trust their governments); but this is part of the debates we need to take forward.

In these past four years since the idea of an Internet Social Forum was broached, many of the issues at stake have become far more evident and in many ways much more alarming. @ 9 Any process for renewal of a global space to create another possible world, as well as the related thematic spaces, whether within or outside the WSF process, need to incorporate these issues as one of the most urgent challenges of our times.