internet profiles

Image_Marcio Costa
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By MARCOS DANTAS*

Data is not only a great source of wealth and capital accumulation but also, by extension, a source of extraordinary power.

Admittedly, many people find it difficult to dissociate the recent decisions of Minister Alexandre de Morais in relation to Twitter and Facebook, from images and speculations that can be made regarding his hidden intentions, considering his political and legal biography. Probably these decisions are nothing more than an expression, on the surface of the current disgusting Brazilian politics, of power struggles that are fought in depths that we can hardly, and even less desire, to discern...

However, these decisions, if we ignore the (bad) actors on stage and admire the theater of the scene, bring to light the deep political-economic and geopolitical contradictions in which the internet is immersed and which, in general, a debate attached only to language formal legal prefers to ignore. Essentially, we need to stop talking about “internet” and other related or derived terms such as, for example, “access providers”, and start talking about “platforms”. When the minister orders the blocking of personal profiles on Twitter or Facebook, he is not blocking these profiles “on the internet”, he is blocking them on these specific “platforms”.

The internet is a physical-logical system that allows interactions at very high multipoint-multipoint speeds through digital technologies. Talking about the internet is talking about DNS, gTLDs, IPv6, PPTs, CDNs, etc. In Brazil, it is the theme par excellence of the Núcleo de Informação e Coordinação do Registro Br (NIC.br), an entity that almost nobody hears about or knows about, but which is vital for the optimal functioning of the Brazilian internet. If you are reading this article now, it is thanks to NIC.br.

However, if you are reading this article now, there is a great chance that you are using a mobile terminal device with an Android or iPad OS operating system, that is, your access is taking place through systems developed and proprietary by Google or Apple . And quite possibly, in addition to reading articles on websites, you also watch videos on YouTube, read posts on Facebook or Twitter, exchange messages or join discussion lists on WhatsApp or Telegram. In these times of pandemic, he probably started shopping more on Amazon, or ordering his meal through iFood. That is, you, strictly speaking, without realizing it very well, “are”, most of your time, on some platform about the internet (see figure).

If someone asks you, “where are you?”, very rarely, only in some specific circumstances would you answer “I'm in Rio de Janeiro”. Most likely answers: “I'm at home”, “I'm at a restaurant”, “I'm shopping”, “I'm at the beach”, “I'm in traffic”, “I'm at work”… In any case, it will be in the city. You are 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, in a city. Needless to say. In the same way, nowadays, you live all the time on the internet and, if you don't turn off your cell phone at night, you even sleep on the internet.

The city where you live is full of rules and regulations: neighborhood zoning, ordinance codes, laws and traffic rules… If someone wants to build a building or house, they need a permit from the city hall after fulfilling several requirements. To open a store, you need a license, a fireman's license. To go out with your car, you need a driver's license, vehicle license, obey the signs... But unlike you, driver in your car subject to many laws while driving on city streets, for that layer you find yourself "about" the internet there is practically no law. Oh! The “civil milestone”, they will say. The “marco civil” is a law that exempts them from laws, I will say.

The legal void in the platform layer stems from the very history of the internet. It was born in the 1970s and 1980s from US university research supported with Pentagon resources. It begins to spread across the United States and, from there, around the world, in the neoliberal environment of the 1990s, that is, under the dominant agenda of emptying the powers of national states while serving, itself, the internet, to reinforce political and ideological power of the United States in the “new order” that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. He arrived in Brazil, as in almost all other countries (with the notable exception of China), through academic or university connections, without asking permission from anyone. Back then, if I had a computer and could connect to another computer over an elementary phone line, all I had to do was make a phone call and, instead of normal voice conversation, talk in written text by sending and receiving messages. “data packets” over the telephone cable. To function, this system required a single intermediary: the “access provider”. The phone call would connect me with that provider and that provider would connect me with the world. From the beginning, in the neoliberal environment, if the access provider was not a university (obviously only accessible to university students), it would be some entity governed by private law (some, it is true, of a non-profit nature). In Brazil, already in the process of privatizing the Telebrás System, the FHC government issued a rule known as “norm 4” which prevented the still public company Embratel from offering access services to the then nascent internet. Instead of a public service, the idea was to make the internet a service provided and operated by the market.

It didn't take long, especially in the United States, for commercial service providers to appear based on this then nascent technology. E-mail service, for example, much more advantageous than the centuries-old post office. News portals. The first “social networks”. And, given the growing worldwide dimension that the network was reaching, the “search” services: Lycos, Excite, AltaVista, etc. Behind all these initiatives was a segment of speculative capital known as “venture capital”: investors specialized in taking risks offering money to talented and creative young people. Thanks to $100 or $200 starting from gamblers like Andy Bechtolsheim, Michael Moritz and others, young people like Bill Gates, Sergey Brin, Mark Zukerberg and many others would become billionaires. Nothing by chance. And those 100 or 200 dollars, after two or three years, turned into 2 billion...

In the first decade of the XNUMXst century, the first big winners emerge after a decade of social and economic experimentation: the platforms Google, Facebook, Amazon, and some others. From then on, the internet is no longer that of the origins. In the first place, it is no longer the exclusive domain of technicians and academics, but a space where millions and millions of people from all over the world meet, with their desires, desires, loves and hates. The internet has become the city. Second, millions of people don't "see" the internet, they "see" the platforms. Even if someone says, “I saw it on the internet”, they actually saw it on Facebook, WhatsApp. Capitalism itself as a whole discovers the power of platforms to increase accumulation and begins to subordinate different business models to the model of platforms.

Platforms make money by trafficking personal data that travels on the internet. Everything that each person says or comments on Facebook, Gmail, YouTube, etc., is reduced to data that describe the economic, health, family, educational, emotional, ideological conditions of that person, above all what type of consumer that person is. This data is sold to advertisers interested in selling a product or service to these same people. The data business is so extraordinary that in 2019 Google's net income was $34,3 billion; Facebook's, 18,5 billion; Amazon's, 11,6 billion; Uber's, 8 billion.

According to the newspaper The Economist,, issue of May 6, 2017, data “is the oil of the XNUMXst century”. With a big difference. To explore oil wealth, a company needs to request a license from the government of the country where the deposit is located and pay the due royalties, in addition to other taxes. To mine, appropriate and monetize the data of millions of citizens of any country, the platforms neither ask for a license nor pay anything...

Data is not only a great source of wealth and capital accumulation, it is also, by extension, a source of extraordinary power. Those who process data on billions of people and millions of companies have an inordinate amount of knowledge about the “moods” and directions of the world. It's a surveillance power that seems to make George Orwell's worst nightmares come true.

Although endowed with such great economic and political power, the platforms have penetrated into countries taking advantage of the gates opened by the internet and the reigning neoliberal ideology. While radio and television stations, including paid services, need licenses or grants to operate; while telecommunications operators, including satellite ones, need authorizations; while private banks need licenses and report to the BC, as well as schools and universities are also under strict (at least in theory) controls by the Union, states and municipalities; while services supplying electricity, or highways and airports, in short everything that is essential for society is somehow subject to public regulation even if provided by private companies; the platforms, despite all this massive economic and political dimension that they have amassed in such a short time, remain outside any specific regulation.

Evidently, sooner or later, this situation would start to bother. Not the United States, of course, where Google or Facebook pay taxes on their momentous profits sucked in. Urbi et orbi, in addition to, according to Edward Snowden, keeping the NSA informed of what is commented on their networks… Not even China, which, in the beginning of this story, had already tried to protect itself properly.

The most important reactions have come from Europe. Justice decisions, some involving heavy fines, European norms or national laws have sought to reduce the political and economic powers of platforms. An important milestone in this regard is the General Regulation for the Protection of Personal Data (GDPR), adopted by the European Union in 2018, with some clauses that apply outside European boundaries. Brazil and other countries have adopted similar laws, adjusting to the European dictate.

Two years ago, at the opening conference of the World Internet Forum in Paris, President Emmanuel Macron expressly called for the regulation of platforms, making it clear that a model should be sought that was equidistant from what he called “Chinese” and “Californian”. That's obvious reference. This refers to the ultraliberal non-regulation that germinated in the United States, more precisely in Silicon Valley, and from there spread to the rest of the world.

The recent decisions of Minister Alexandre de Morais, as well as the bill 2630 being discussed in the Chamber on fake news, whatever the immediate motivations of their actors, are concretely inserted in this larger debate. Simply, the absence of strong regulation of a public nature over the operation of the platforms begins to show the internet's economic and political dysfunctionalities. It worked very well while it was still a basically technical environment, frequented by an academic elite and a few other curious people interested in, shall we say, the good of humanity. It no longer works so well, when it started to give voice to millions of imbeciles, as Umberto Eco said, and, above all, started to have its evolution controlled by commercial and financial interests.

Mark Zukerberg, Sergey Brin, Larry Page, Jeff Bezos are some of the best known names in the medium. Each, along with a handful of longtime collaborators, owns about 30% of the capital of Facebook, Alphabet (holding Google), Amazon. Another 70%, on each of these platforms, is in the hands of more than 1.500 financial institutions, with around 30% concentrated on a few, whose names are repeated on the three platforms: Vanguard Group, FMR-LCC, State Street, Price (T. Rowe) Associations etc. (see table). It is a capital profile common to any other platforms. Therefore, their main commitment, if not the only one, is the profit of their shareholders. Therefore, it doesn't matter if any message that travels on Facebook, WhatsApp or Twitter is of love or hate, spreads truth or falsehood, is video of kittens or racist speech. Any message will contain data about who sends it and who receives it, and data is worth money.

From the strict point of view of the Internet's technical layer, a message can take strange paths. Platform servers are spread across the world. A computer that is physically located in Rio de Janeiro can be identified, via the internet, as being located in Iceland or Kazakhstan. And the platform, as WhatsApp always claims, can also be said to be a company located outside Brazil, therefore outside the reach of Brazilian laws, although it is used by 60 million Brazilians. In technical, engineering terms, that's the way it is. But from the political and economic point of view, the concrete life of people and companies that use the platforms still takes place within the jurisdictional territory of a country. That's what Minister Alexandre de Morais found: it doesn't matter where the platform's server is, it matters where its user – a person of flesh and blood – has his home and does his business. Never mind the technical screws. They matter where human actions are performed. And if criminal, it is up to the platform to comply with the law of the country where the criminal operates, not the country where their computers are or appear to be.

Minister Moraes' decisions, as well as the processing of PL 2630, may shed light on the greater platform regulation agenda. It is undeniable that this is a very complex process, not least because the internet, in its technical layer, was built to constrain this debate. Multilateral agreements, between sovereign states, will be necessary. The UN is there for that. But contrary to what happens in Europe, where legislation advances after many studies and much exchange of ideas between specialists and political leaders, in Brazil the processes take place at the whim of the pressures and counter-pressures of the interests of the moment, such as those we are now experiencing. It is, however, on the one hand, assuming that we can no longer exempt platforms from the same controls and costs to which other essential services are subjected: their shareholders cannot continue to be the only ones to gain from such lucrative “oil”. On the other hand, it will be necessary to understand that given the technical, economic, political, even geopolitical complexities involved, this problem cannot continue to be decided in the drowning of some bill dealing (badly) with a small superficial part of the whole, nor in the monocratic authority of some judge, however supreme, at the mercy of occasional conflicts. Thinking beyond this current hazy moment in which we live, society needs to face the task of building a large public regulation project that submits US internet platforms to the sovereign jurisdiction of Brazil.

*Marcos Dantas He is a professor at the School of Communication at UFRJ, elected counselor of the Internet Management Committee (CGI.br).

Originally published in Jornal GGN [embed link] https://jornalggn.com.br/cidadania/para-desbloquear-o-debate-sobre-bloqueios-de-perfis-na-internet-por-marcos-dantas/

 

 

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