Why is it important to know the power structure behind the Internet?
A researcher named Rebecca Mackinnon once said that we know how the world works in real life but we don’t understand the mechanisms that govern the digital world. If you know where a lawmaker works you could demand to meet with him or send him a letter… but you wouldn’t be able to do that if you think he lives on TV. What we see now is that every time a technology-related scandal breaks out, people complain and go around saying “they’re tracking our information.” Who? Why? It’s not the same when a private company does it as when a government is the culprit.
Why are you so interested in the inner workings of the Web, from underwater cables to server farms?
It’s part of my job to bust myths. When I began the book I conducted a very simple survey: I asked 50 people to draw the Internet. Most of those drawings reflected the idea of the Internet as a cloud, as something that’s in the sky. But if you analyze things more closely you can begin to understand who’s responsible when the Internet service is cut off — which in most cases is due to companies failing to make the necessary investments in infrastructure.
Do you consider Julian Assange a hacker or a journalist?
He’s a political activist. But, hey, he’s trying to break the establishment, which is something all good journalists should want to do. Both Assange and (former NSA analyst Edward) Snowden are revealing the secrets the powers-that-be don’t want revealed. Today they’re targeting (Barack) Obama or Angela Merkel, tomorrow it could be Visa or Citibank. That’s good. I do think though that journalists would do better if they mastered the technological tools or had a better knowledge of hacktivism.
Google is considered a huge advertising company since most part of its business benefits come from big data — that is, concentrating a large amount of information regarding tastes and patterns of consumption. Was their business model always this way?
Google got into the web at a time when there was a lot of information flying around. It established itself as the world’s main sorter of information by creating a superior search engine. Later it used that information to create profiles of users to sell us stuff. But that business model has a limit.
Because a lot of the world’s population is not yet online. Therefore, the company’s next step is to enter into the infrastructure business, which now belongs to the telecommunication firms. All advertising business needs to expand its database, so they need to get more people to use their services.
That sounds similar to what Facebook is doing with its Internet.org initiative…
(Mark) Zuckerberg’s goal is to bring Internet access to places where people are not yet online because he needs to create consumers. For them, it’s a profitable investment. The thing is that for these people, Internet access would be through Facebook, providing a limited vision of the world.
People tend to think that the benefits of using these sites is immediate while harm is only potential, and in the long term.
That’s the great problem with privacy. You use Google because it carries out fast searches, you shop at Amazon because that’s where you find all the world’s products in a single place. People aren’t stupid. But my main point is that we need to stop thinking like users and start thinking like citizens. We must be, at least, minimally aware of what’s happening to our data.
It’s a difficult proposal considering most people can barely cope with their Twitter and Facebook feeds…
I know it’s a step forward. I also have trouble with those issues.
What do you think of the strategy to diversify platforms in order to minimize exposure to a single company? Meaning, use Google to search but access it through Firefox, or turning off your GPS when it isn’t needed…
Full synchronization is a risk. Let me give you an example: last week they stole my computer. But I had the Ubuntu operating system with a password and hadn’t synchronized all my data. I lost the computer, but I didn’t lose everything.
In one of the chapters of the book you analyze the problem posed by video surveillance. How would you describe this strange relationship between the governments who install those cameras and news channels?
An adviser to (presidential candidate) Sergio Massa once told me: “I need to be in the media every day. If I need to hand over footage of how a thief was caught in order to achieve that goal, so be it.” He said that on the record! Those videos are produced with public funds and then municipalities send them to TV channels for free. But there’s a larger problem with the cameras that have become commonplace.
Local governments have not published statistics proving that security cameras help decrease crime. I would even consider supporting them if someone could prove they help — but without reliable statistics, it has become a matter of faith.
What’s the difference between this conversation we’ve been having and conspiracy theories?
Conspiracy theories are really anti-politics. Paranoids believe politics have nothing to do with this — but it’s clear that politics define the adoption of a certain technology or introduce the biometric identification of its citizens. I believe there’s a different path: politicians should have specialized advisers who can help them with these complex issues, the same way they hire experts in order to deal with regulations of assisted fertilization or hydrocarbons. We can’t just have three specialists talking about this. We need to open up the debate, otherwise we’ll keep on hearing the same thing by the same three technology experts.