How the Internet Is Transforming from a Tool of Liberation to One of Oppression

Remember when the Internet was going to fix the world? According to leading technology pundits, traditional dinosaurs were going to be “disintermediated” and “disrupted,” freeing us all from meddling middlemen and allowing competition to flourish. We wouldn’t need corrupt professional media makers anymore because we would all blog and tweet. Social networking would empower protesters and enhance democracy the world over.

Today coincides with a national day of action called “Reset the Net,” marking theone-year anniversary of Edward Snowden’s National Security Administration revelations. And as this video to promote the protest shows, the mood has darkened considerably. Thanks to Snowden, we now know the Internet has become a giant government spying apparatus dependent on the complicity of companies we use everyday. The pendulum of public perception is swinging — the Internet transforming from a tool of liberation and expression to one of oppression and control.

A Reuters poll from April showed that a majority of Americans believe that technology companies including Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Amazon are “encroaching too much upon their lives.” It’s a rather remarkable statistic given these companies were universally loved not that long ago, widely imagined to be allies of the people against the old oligarchs.

There are various reasons pessimism is on the rise besides surveillance, though that’s a big one. Google has been investigated by government officials for promoting its own products in search results above competitors’ and has been revealed as one ofWashington’s biggest lobbyists. Subpar labor conditions and worker suicides at Apple’s factories have made headlines. Amazon has been getting bad press lately for theabominable conditions in its warehouses and for bullying publishers to get more favorable terms, making it impossible or difficult for customers to purchase certain titles. The list goes on. Meanwhile, these companies keep expanding, buying up competition and staking their claim on new technological frontiers, from mobile messaging and virtual reality to home appliances and transportation.

As an independent documentary filmmaker and activist, I’m dependent on new technologies and aware of their potential; in many ways, I’m a prime candidate for championing the digital revolution. But like a growing number of my fellow citizens, I’m worried that we’ve taking the wrong turn on the road to the future, which is why I wrote my book The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age. Look around and it’s clear that we are not seeing a revolution but a rearrangement, with architectural, economic, and social hierarchies warping the web and many of the problems of the old model–centralization, consolidation, and commercialization–perpetuated and even intensified online.

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