Interview with Martin Gelin, Swedish Author: Crisis of information on net as big and urgent as climate change

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Updated: February 3, 2019 3:17:29 AM

Gelin tells about the gigantic role the internet and its tools play in our lives and what needs to be done to optimise its use

Martin Gelin was in India to attend the Jaipur Literature Festival

An award-winning author, Martin Gelin is a Swedish journalist who is currently working as the New York correspondent for Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter. He has written six books, most of them focusing on US politics, since 2009. In his latest book, The Internet is Broken: Silicon Valley and the Crisis of Democracy, he points out that inventions of Silicon Valley’s visionaries have paved the way for an anti-democratic revolution that now seems to threaten our entire human civilisation. What role have they played in the phenomenon? In India to attend the Jaipur Literature Festival, Gelin tells Ivinder Gill about the gigantic role the internet and its tools play in our lives and what needs to be done to optimise its use. Edited excerpts:

You talk of technological colonialism. The alternate could be the Big Brother approach by respective governments, with them demanding access to data. Which do you think is worse for the mass population?
I think there must be a middle ground where you don’t allow the government to abuse the data for authoritarian sort of purposes or to encroach on civil liberties, but there is also no excuse for private businesses to track everything outside their periphery to understand consumer pattern and behaviour in the name of data. I mean, Facebook and Google are more powerful than governments in many countries. So, I think we need to be wary of giving too much information to both of these groups.

Do you really think the stringent laws passed by Europe, the internet control by China and proposed data privacy laws in India can actually check technological colonialism?
I think so. It doesn’t seem to be hurting business as much as they claim to. There is often outrage when these kind of regulations are proposed. But in California, there’s a privacy act that Google and Facebook ended up endorsing because it’s a reasonable compromise between user etiquette and business interests.

Would you say that given our dependency on the internet and various networking platforms, and their inevitable access to our data, the final control on data privacy can lie with the user to a large extent?
No! I don’t think that you can put so much burden on the user. These are basically public resources by now. These are the platforms we use to not only get news and talk to our friends but also to pay bills and do everyday tasks. The idea that every individual should take responsibility of this by themselves is something that I don’t think is feasible.

You can compare it to climate change for instance, where I am sure everybody can take personal responsibility and try to do what they can to not waste energy, but it’s obvious that we need wide-scale solutions. The crisis of information on the internet is as big and urgent a problem as climate change.

Do you see any solutions for the situation of extensive internet use and the desire for data protection? Can they exist simultaneously?

We think so. There are hopeful signs in new data protection laws in the EU and California, among other places. But it requires organised pressure from consumer advocates and activists, and leadership from politicians.

The internet is anybody’s tool. While we are seeing its misuse in terms of fake news, we are also seeing mass movements like #MeToo. Do we have no choice then but to live with this reality?
A wide variety of political movements have been successful using social media and internet platforms, but over the past decade, we have seen a particular effect where far-right messages are disproportionately successful. This is no coincidence, but a consequence of the design choices of these platforms, and the elevation of content that sparks “engagement”, which often means content sparking feelings of hate and outrage. Sometimes this also benefits movements for tolerance and human rights, but the platforms can do a much better job of making sure that the most destructive content is not elevated as much as it is now.

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