The internet is undermining the traditional bastions of state power
Whoosh. There goes £100 billion. With one mighty slosh in the frothing sea of international markets, Facebook stock lost a fifth of its value in a few hours this week, making for the biggest US stock-market loss ever seen in a single day.
It’s not been the best year for the tech giant. It has been panned by politicians and activists for allowing its platform to become a propaganda arm for malign forces from Russia to Isil, for funnelling user data into unscrupulous hands and for driving us all crazy with social media addiction. Its chief executive Mark Zuckerberg has been hauled in to testify at length before the US Congress, and has riled European political opposition by his derisive refusal to do the same here.
The need to police his enormous website is starting to cost Mr Zuckerberg more money. But more importantly, users seem to be getting a bit bored with it. They are clicking less on its links, seem less moved by its adverts and, in the developed world, the number of its users is getting to saturation point. Facebook is still a ginormous beast, of course, reaching 2.2 billion people and counting each month, but investors have realised the breakneck expansion pace can’t continue.
It’s easy to get fixated on the misdeeds of a particular company and cheer its misfortunes. God knows, Facebook is hard to like. But the truth is that we are just at the start of the data age it represents. Our current attempts to rein in its excesses are likely to prove wholly inadequate; the global flow of data will turn economies upside down and challenge the very idea of the state. Facebook’s fortunes can shoot up and down in the blink of an eye, but even when it does decline and fail, the problems it’s creating will only spring up anew.
Take the EU’s first major data regulation, GDPR. Most of us will know it only from the flurry of emails we all received a few months ago, asking us to sign back up to company email lists. These emails were, incidentally, not actually required by the legislation, but few businesses seemed able to discern what it did require.
That’s because GDPR is an analogue regulation for a digital world. It tries to establish the right principles, but modern tech is a slippery beast and our current regulatory methods certainly aren’t up to the task of policing it.
One small example illustrates why. GDPR tries to enhance users’ rights over personal data rather than deeming it the sole property of the organisation that collects it. So one of its provisions is that, if a person demands it, a company must delete the personal data it holds on her. This sounds simple, but it isn’t.
“Delete” isn’t a binary term in IT. It could mean anything from making the data unavailable and hard to access, writing over it eight times, or shredding the physical disc on which it’s stored. It’s also extremely difficult for a company to be sure it’s managed to “delete” every copy it might have.
Logging into a company’s Wi-Fi and buying one of its products could involve storing your details in three places, for example, in databases that are probably not automatically linked or indexed. That’s before we even get to the definition of “personal data”, which is not always clear.
In other words, this very reasonable-sounding law is extremely difficult to obey and almost certainly unenforceable.
Then there’s the problem of jurisdiction. Increasingly, data is being stored on the cloud – networked servers that users can access from anywhere. Governments increasingly want to know and make laws on where the data is stored so that they can apply rules to it on usage or access by law enforcement.
Unfortunately for them, within a cloud, data moves around political jurisdictions seamlessly and unnoticeably. It can be in several places at once or might appear to be unavailable when in fact it still exists somewhere.
This ephemeral quality belies the fact that data is becoming one of mankind’s most valuable resources. If a company started shipping gold bars back and forth between countries, states would probably notice and start to tax them. This ability to have a territory and levy taxes is, in fact, one of the oldest and most defining characteristics of a government. But now it’s easy to ship a treasure trove of data from one side of the planet to the other without a single interaction with any authorities.
This is both exciting and terrifying. It potentially opens up a world of freedom our ancestors could never have imagined, in which humans form their own associations, businesses or relationships across previously unsurmountable boundaries. We can exchange information unfettered, escape censorious or paternalistic authorities and create entirely new forms of association and ideas for living.
Unfortunately, history teaches that liberating technology always uncovers the evil alongside the good and creative in humanity. Extremist ideologies can flow across the world just as easily as new sewing designs. Making criminals and states accountable for their actions is becoming increasingly murky and difficult. And the primacy of digital interactions is crowding out real life, geographical ties and richer emotional experiences.
Even more alarming is the prospect of how this will transform governments. It’s entirely possible that in the future, the only way for governments to exercise the normal functions of a state that we now take for granted will be to build centralised, authoritarian databases and surveillance mechanisms. The archetype for this is, of course, China.
Beijing is the only modern authority able to police the internet. It deploys a variety of tools, from making online anonymity illegal to cutting itself off from all external influences and introducing a new “social credit” system, in which every online user is rated depending on various behaviours, such as the prompt repayment of debts, the number of hours they spend playing computer games or the “quality” of their social media posts.
Compared with this nightmarish vision, Facebook looks almost benign. It isn’t, of course, but nor is it clear what exactly we can do about its most malignant aspects without radically altering our attitude to privacy, freedom and state power. Democratic, liberal values and the nation state have been sorely tested many times in their history. But the coming tech age might be their biggest test yet.