The Data Monarch and the Power Dynamics of the Internet

words by tristan sauer
art by tristan sauer and shihab mian

“Own a piece of Internet history!” is the tagline that sits beside the entrance to The Million Dollar Homepage, a website with one million pixels, all for sale for a dollar each. It’s long since been filled with everything from links to games, hidden waldos and a whole lot of ads. Most of the links you can click on are long dead, lost to unpaid hosting and forgotten everywhere except here, where their pixels shine on in Internet history. In a way, each of these pixels represents a plot of land that somebody on the Internet owns. This tiny plot of Internet land that so many lay claim to was one of the first examples of a communal distribution of land on the Internet. 

The Internet functions a lot like our own world. No one entity unanimously owns the Internet: no single country, organization or ultra-rich billionaire. But representatives from all these groups own bits of it, like plots of land or countries.

The Internet functions a lot like our own world. No one entity unanimously owns the Internet: no single country, organization or ultra-rich billionaire. But representatives from all these groups own bits of it, like plots of land or countries. Navigating cyberspace is then a lot like immigrating through borders; with countries ranging in spaces like YouTube and Facebook instead of France and Mexico. Avatars become our identities, identities which change depending on the space we occupy – for example being anonymous on sites like 4chan – and accounts/emails being our passports. I see Google as an all-encompassing virtual passport, as I know I am all too willing to click the ‘sign in with Google’ button on any site willing to offer it, rather than creating a whole new profile for myself using the same 5 passwords present on all my other accounts.

Thus, these spaces too must operate under some form of rules and regulations, at the whim of a higher power or authority figure who dictates them down to the population of each space. In Internet terms, this is what we will refer to as users. For most users, this is probably pretty common knowledge; we’ve become increasingly familiar with the check box and the mountains of text we consent to by filling it. Sites like Facebook and YouTube have long, extensive terms and agreements along with user guidelines to control the types of content that is available on their desired platforms. It’s for these reasons why most sites deemed ‘social media’ do not allow nudity and those that do become almost completely consumed by it.

The user agreement then functions as a virtual constitution that is always in discourse: updating and continuously morphing to allow greater freedoms for users and more often the corporations and people who write them— we’ll get back to this in a bit. This makes user agreements dissimilar to many of our own constitutions, the most famous of which was updated last in 1992 (the 27th amendment) and whose oldest rules have remained unchanged since 1789: nearly 203 years ago. Most of the virtual countries (or as we call them websites) that we know of today, sprang up in the void left by the bubble pop – an inflation in the stock market caused by large investments in the internet, which crashed as a result of 9/11  – and have changed their constitutions on an almost yearly basis.

The writers of these constitutions, much like the founding fathers before them, are thus the political leaders of the virtual world. But the difference here is that we never elected them. Jeff Bezos never ran for office at Amazon, he “built” it (I employ quotations here as to say that Bezos is not the sole architect or labourer that brought Amazon to what it is today, but that’s an entirely different topic). In a way, all digital spaces are dictatorships. A faceless and often nameless monarch or collection of monarchs subjugate what can and cannot be said/done/shared on their platforms. We pay for access to these resources with our own data; our digital footprints and patterns are mined and sold back to us as targeted advertising. Jumana Abu-Ghazaleh of OneZero might have said this best when referring to Mark Zuckerberg’s position as the head of Facebook and in a way the most powerful data monarch on the planet: “the most important election this year has only one voter.” Zuckerberg might in a way be the most powerful person on the planet, or at least the western world. I’m sure there are others who would have problems with that ruling, but the fact of the matter is while Zuckerberg may not have his name on any ballots, his political influence online fundamentally changes and shapes our public life both invasively and secretively.

Our digital footprints and patterns are mined and sold back to us as targeted advertising.

This is mainly due to the rapid increase of social media as a primary news source, and thus often the assumed truth for users. As a 2019 Forbes article put it, “social media is now a part of the news diet of an increasingly large share of the U.S. population.” Approximately 28% of American adults stated that they ‘often’ receive their news from social media. This places social media as a more widely viewed news source than print media as of 2017. These trends are only expected to increase, as age plays a large factor into where users receive their information. It’s estimated while only 8% – 14% of users in the 50+ age range receive the majority of their news from social media, 36% of users in the 18-29 age range do. This places social media as the number one source of information for adults below the age of 30. These statistics do not include information for anyone under the age of 18 and are centralized only in America, but they show an unsurprising trend, as social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram become the dominant sources for news and information not just on the Internet, but everywhere.

This places Zuckerberg in a very powerful position; one where his lack of responsibility can lead to devastating results. As Jim Morrison once famously said, “Whoever controls the media, controls the mind.” An ironic juxtaposition to a quote by Zuckerberg where he stated, “When you give everyone a voice and give people power, the system usually ends up in a really good place. So, what we view our role as, is giving people that power.” This sentiment is nice, and certainly helped market Facebook like wildfire back in the early 2000s when worldwide communication through the internet was still something we marvelled at. But the truth of the matter is that Zuckerberg and other data monarchs like him have an extreme level of unelected and unchecked power. With many tech companies like Facebook, Apple, Amazon and Microsoft amassing the fortunes and influence of small nations, we have to start questioning why these leaders are able to operate outside of a democracy.

Perhaps it’s hard to criticize the intrusive and omnipresent power of data monarchs when our involvement in their services is seemingly optional. Nobody is making me buy a three-meter corded cell phone charger from Amazon, or forcing me to post my work to Instagram. I make these choices out of my own free will. But there is a valid argument about the necessity of social media in the modern day. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a business, artist or journalist without a social media account that they use to promote themselves. Even the vast majority of world leaders use Twitter as a means of communicating with the public. Social media is simply inescapable in many professions, and by refusing to post your work on Instagram,  you risk never seeing any response or losing out on business opportunities. As an artist, I would personally love to completely remove myself from the Instagram algorithm, but I haven’t because Instagram is my number one platform for finding work, engaging with the art community and promoting myself. But yes, this is still technically a choice. We all know somebody who has done a full social media cleanse or has little to no social media presence and is living wonderfully. For some of us, our involvement in social media is less of a choice and more of an invasion. 

Surveillance is something we’ve all become familiar with, but with the rising mass of social media’s available user databases, we have unwillingly given more power to surveillance organizations than ever before.

I remember once being prompted by my Google photos to confirm if photos in my library were indeed the faces of my friends saved in my contact list. Without the knowledge or consent of them, I was given the power to link my friends’ pictures to  their personal information such as names, phone numbers and email addresses. In this circumstance, it would not have mattered if any of my friends had been social media free. Their information was still being mined from them without their knowledge, through someone else’s phone. The implications of this go far beyond just being in the Google database.

Surveillance is something we’ve all become familiar with, but with the rising mass of social media’s available user databases, we have unwillingly given more power to surveillance organizations than ever before. Facial recognition is something that has been in the news for years, but has peaked in 2020 with the rampant use of the technology by law enforcement. Though there has been no direct confirmation of Black Lives Matter protestors being arrested as a result of facial recognition, there have been many clues that it is already being used to target them. This has led to people urging for the censoring of faces when uploading pictures and videos of protests; something that is admittedly easier right now with most protestors wearing masks for protection against COVID-19. One such example was the arrest of BLM activist Derrick Ingram who was raided in his New York home on August 7th 2020. Police documents titled “Facial Identification Section Informational Lead Report” containing an Instagram photo of Ingram were seen in police possession at Ingram’s property during the arrest. This coupled with the following quote from the NYPD leads many to believe that facial recognition has been widely used throughout the 2020 BLM protests: “The NYPD uses facial recognition as a limited investigative tool, comparing a still image from a surveillance video to a pool of lawfully possessed arrest photos.” 

While these issues exist outside of the interactions we have on the Internet, the data they pull from certainly does not. Further, neither does the bias that is involved in the collection and distribution of this data. A leader in the facial recognition race has been American technology company Clearview AI, whose facial recognition software is what their CEO Hoan Ton-That calls “a search engine for faces.” If you upload to social media regularly or have friends that do, this described search engine  probably contains your data. This data can then be used to identify both you and any digital identities you have.  There are numerous ethical issues that come with this, but the important takeaway is that social media is the unravelling of public privacy. The Internet and those who control its data do not just breach privacy online, but in real-world situations that often include law enforcement. Pete Cashmore, CEO of Mashable once said, “Privacy is dead, and social media holds the smoking gun.” 

Of course, the protection of this data that keeps it from getting into the hands of organizations like Clearview and the NYPD, falls onto the shoulders of the CEOs who control it. Data monarchs like Zuckerberg and Bezos have the influence to change how power dynamics between citizens and law enforcement can be skewed out of citizens’ favours. These monarchs reign supreme on their respective virtual platforms but also actively contribute to the  diminishing power of everyday people to resist dictatorship and control their own lives.  This level of irresponsibility would be highly controversial and would certainly create large public outcry, if done by a world leader with any perceived power. Yet we continue to let the power of data monarchs exist in a vacuum, unaffected by the voices of the people and the government. In some cases this irresponsibility has led to fatal results. Facebook famously came under fire for letting the Myanmar military run a half decade campaign that continues to this date prejudicing against its Muslim minority, the Rohingya. The anti-Rohingya propaganda as stated by the New York Times incited “murders, rapes and the largest forced human migration in recent history.” Facebook had all the power to step in to prevent this tragedy, but continued to allow the propaganda to exist on its platform, aiding the advancement of the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar.

The unchecked power that data monarchs have online has real world, sometimes catastrophic, effects on the rest of the planet. Data monarchs are undemocratic leaders of the digital world, a world that has been ingrained into our humanity as of the 21st century. Social media is a key source of news, information and far too often a guide for public opinion. Unchecked and unregulated, it can be used in devastating ways that we haven’t even experienced yet.

It goes even beyond data monarchs; governments also continue to increase their methods of surveillance and censorship through the Internet.

Bleak as this may seem, resistance to this power is rampant. There is an ongoing battle between the people, who are the original pioneers of the Internet and corporations, who have dominated it since the bubble crash. Protesting in real life is integral to resisting undemocratic governments and changes to the rights of citizens. Protests on the Internet are just the same, but they take very different forms. Hacking may be the most widely known example of this. Groups like Anonymous are infamous Internet hackers and protestors who have gone to virtual war against homophobia in Nigeria, oppression in Hong Kong and most recently police brutality following the 2020 murder of George Floyd. They’ve even gone as far as sending threats directly to ISIS and the National Security Agency (NSA) among many others. They stand as a symbolic vanguard over both the digital and tangible rights of citizens on a global scale. Their iconic Guy Fawkes masks have penetrated far beyond the group’s original image, and are now a common symbol seen at protests to avert surveillance as well as show a powerful message of rebellion. Novelist Bruce Schneier discussed the battle for the Internet extensively in his 2013 piece in The Atlantic titled, “The Battle for Power on the Internet.” Much like we can attribute spaces on the Internet to the likeness of countries with borders, leaders and constitutions; Schneier attributes tech giants to the likes of Feudal Lords with users being various combinations of citizens who either live with or resist their rule. We swear our allegiance to the companies that promise to provide us with the best security, features or ease of use; but in the process, we lose our hold on the Internet. As Schneier states, “Feudal security consolidates power in the hands of the few. Internet companies, like lords before them, act in their own self-interest.” The relationship between user and monarch is one that almost always benefits the monarch over the user, mainly through profits.

It goes even beyond data monarchs; governments also continue to increase their methods of surveillance and censorship through the Internet. In countries like China, access to social media and Google is completely banned and is instead replaced by government approved and filtered outlets. Meanwhile, in countries like Lebanon, gay dating apps such as Grindr have been banned to comply with the government’s views on homosexuality. Data monarchs have been all too willing to side with the efforts of governments to increase surveillance, as they too benefit from having more information on their users. The NSA has already been documented using databases held by Google and Facebook. Schneier sums this up beautifully by stating, “The same facial recognition technology that Disney uses in its theme parks can also identify protesters in China and Occupy Wall Street activists in New York.” It is clear that there is a disparity between the private powers of governments and corporations, and that of the people. This divide is turning more into a power struggle every day, one we are losing.

The Internet has always been a place where the oppressed could rally and organize. One search on any major social media site and you can find countless organizations with pages set up for a plethora of campaigns. The Internet gives groups a chance to organize and communicate. GoFundMe’s and social media hashtags have been driving forces of change. We’ve seen the impacts of social media campaigns,  with everything from the creation of educational institutions like the Black School, to the reopening of closed cases like that for Elijah McClain. Beyond that, hackers and cyber activists (like Anonymous) battle for a reclamation of the Internet in the pockets of advancement that the private sector and even governments lack speed in rectifying. Schneier gives the example of the rampant cases of cybercrime that followed the introduction of e-commerce and how it took decades for law enforcement and banks to crack down. As technology continues to evolve, so will the gap between hacker’s ability to disrupt and law enforcement’s ability to combat them or as Schneier calls it a “security gap.” Like would-be Robin Hoods, they pick at the territory data monarchs try so hard to hold onto. We are entering a digital arms race of sorts, and the best we can do is resist.

Resist surveillance, resist data mining, resist censorship, resist forfeiting our rights for ease of access. We’ve already become used to covering our webcams with tape and our faces with masks. More can be done to protect individual power, and more will have to be done.   The conflicts we see on the Internet are quickly evolving. A few years ago, concerns over 3D printed guns reached a peak, and now for the first time ever “Ghost Guns” have become a problem in Canadian cities, firearms that have no serial number for they’ve been printed at home, from the Internet. The battle on the Internet will grow until it breaks the wall of cyberspace in a way we cannot yet predict.

The Internet, a world built on the ideas of freedom, is the most likely cause of us losing any sense of democracy.

The downfall of democracy is something people living in the “free world” have feared for years. Yet the Internet, a world built on the ideas of freedom, is the most likely cause of us losing any sense of democracy. A loss of democracy that will ripple into our own reality and fundamentally change the power dynamics between citizens, corporations and the government. The idea that the leaders of the Internet should be democratically elected in the same way world leaders are, instead of them ruling like monarchs is something we desperately need to address. We can’t continue to let powers out of our control to open Pandora’s box after Pandora’s box while subsequently colonizing greater plots of the one piece of the world nobody owns: the Internet. The breaking point won’t be when we all realize George Orwell’s novel 1984 was right the whole time or when they start putting chips in our brains. In fact, we have no idea what it will be. What’s important is that we demand the same transparency of data monarchs as we demand of our own governments.

Without transparency, we risk the loss of democracy over our news, privacy and safety. We need to work to bring the power dynamics back into the favour of the people, and that all starts with data. Data fuels and powers the internet. Individuals need to protect their data more closely and governments need to implement protections for their citizens’ data, or they risk feeding directly into authoritarianism. Most importantly, we should also consider what the role of a monarch is supposed to be. Monarchies, while all powerful, had duties to their people. Today’s data monarchs have left the responsibility of guarding the moat in the hands of their people; they are bad monarchs whose only goal is feeding back our own data to us for corporate gain. In a way, Pandora’s box was opened a long time ago, and we are simply trying to contain what’s slipped out before it’s too late. Schneier comments on how our grandchildren will look at data in the future in the same way we look at pollution. They will “judge us on how we dealt with the rebalancing of power.”

There is no way to tell how this rebalance will go. Speculation can only go so far, and we’ve all seen enough dystopian movies to know that morale isn’t high. The point is we still have hope and thankfully time. Time to rectify the imbalances we have created by letting a power dynamic exist on the Internet in the first place. Time to ensure that the users of tomorrow do not long for the freedom of today. Privacy may be long dead, and children born today are likely to have their photos shared online before they’re even born. But we can make sure there is a balance between private and public powers. Democracy must find its way to the Internet, the only question is how.

tristan sauer

Tristan Sauer is a freelance New Media Artist, Curator and Writer, speculating about technology and it’s intersections with society. He graduated from the New Media program at Ryerson University in 2020 and made his exhibition and curatorial debut that year at META 2020. Sauer works in a mixture of mediums, but primarily focuses on physical computing and interactive/wearable electronic art. He intends for his work to challenge his audience’s preordaned opinion on social norms. His work explores these norms in a poetic manner that hopfully leaves viewers with something to think about.

instagram: @sauer.tristan
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