SOPA, PIPA, and the Crisis of Trust

Yesterday saw a ‘blackout’ of several popular websites, including Wikipedia and Reddit, whilst other popular websites like Google and Craigslist displayed messages on their homepages, protesting against two separate anti-censorship bills, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP [Intellectual Property] Act (PIPA).

Both are meant to attack the problem of foreign Web sites that sell pirated or counterfeit goods. They would impose restrictions forcing U.S. companies to stop selling online ads to suspected pirates, processing payments for illegal online sales and refusing to list websites suspected of piracy in search-engine results. But, protesters say, the bills would actually do very little to prevent piracy and illegal websites, and instead may result in the extreme censorship and even takedown of websites that rely on user-generated content, like Wikipedia or YouTube.

The protest is the first of its kind, where some of the most visited websites on the internet have voiced their discontent with the proposed law. Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, while having issued statements against the two laws, have been noticeably absent from the protests, aside from a status update by Mark Zuckerberg:

The internet is the most powerful tool we have for creating a more open and connected world. We can’t let poorly thought out laws get in the way of the internet’s development. Facebook opposes SOPA and PIPA, and we will continue to oppose any laws that will hurt the internet.

The world today needs political leaders who are pro-internet. We have been working with many of these folks for months on better alternatives to these current proposals. I encourage you to learn more about these issues and tell your congressmen that you want them to be pro-internet.

This points to the larger issue of trust, and the lack of it, that is apparent in these legislations. Curbing access to the internet, censoring online content and preventing free expression (singing a cover of your favorite song on a YouTube video would be made illegal under these laws) only leads to discontent and a greater crisis of trust. Like in the recent episode in Egypt where the government attempted to block internet connectivity, citizens are left with little illusion about the government’s protection of their rights to information and expression.

Planning for D!p 3 Begins

By Ayesha Vemuri

Hello and greetings for the new year! First, our apologies for the long silence, but although we’ve been back from the winter break for two weeks now, planning our various new activities and directions for the new year has taken up most of our time and energy. Foremost amongst these is commencing our plans for the third edition of the Design Public Conclave, to be held in New Delhi on April 20, 2012, for which the focus topic is ‘Trust, Participation, Innovation.’

A major point that was reiterated several times during both the last two conclaves, especially with respect to the question of governance innovation, was that there is a grave lack of trust and a general belief that the government is disinterested in promoting the actual interests of the public. Corporations too are being increasingly mistrusted, and their honesty questioned. People appear to be losing faith in the efficacy of institutions, both public and private, observable in the wave of protests from Tahrir Square in Egypt to the Ram Lila grounds in New Delhi, and on over to Zuccotti Park in New York.There is a crisis of trust, as it were, on account of the disconnect between traditional institutions and the socially mediated public.

Citizens the world over seem to be demonstrating a burning desire to participate in making change happen, but there are no established avenues or channels for participation, and they must improvise. Social media platforms provide such an avenue, and in fact all of the many protests of the past year have been organized and intensified, at least to some degree, due to social media. The experience of social media can lead to the development of new expectations of trust and participation, and will require traditional institutions, both public and private, to reconfigure their structures to generate more inclusiveness, participation, and trust. One of the major aims of the third Design Public conclave is to explore and answer the question of how this can be achieved.

While the event isn’t for another few months, we are beginning the entire process sooner this time around, and hope for our own approach to be inspired by the topic. We hope for the planning process to be a more inclusive and participatory lead-in the to the conclave, especially via online and social media platforms. We will be hosting discussions on our linkedin group, facebook page, and through twitter (#designpubic). As always, the blog will continue to function as the main platform for the dissemination of our thoughts, but we hope to expand this avenue as well, by inviting our expert speakers and participants to contribute articles and thoughts on an ongoing basis. We also look forward to your thoughts, comments, and participation over these next couple of months until the conclave.

For more information about the Design Public Conclave, read the outbriefs and see the books from the first and second editions, and also stay tuned for announcements on the CKS and Design Public websites.

Technology and the New Digital Individual – Liberation or Enslavement?

The many revolutions happening around the world, from Ramlila Maidan to Tahrir Square, have been, or are being, at least in part fueled and propelled by the technologies we use, especially online social media. And at the same time, governments are imposing restrictions on internet use to limit its use for resistance, such as the Egyptian internet curtailing in response to the Arab Spring. Moreover, quite apart from the use of social media for protest, lies the massive debate of privacy and the erosion of the private space through the overuse of social media. The fact that platforms like facebook and twitter allow for, and even encourage, constant updates on every facet of one’s life, has led skeptics to claim that the public declaration of so much personal information can and will result in greater governmental control.

This debate, of whether technology is a controlling influence or a liberating influence, is extremely pertinent in these ever more networked times. At the Names not Numbers conference in Mumbai last week, a panel comprised of Aditya Dev Sood, Julia Hobsbawm, Nishant Shah and Dan Lloyd had an hour-long discussion on this topic, where some fascinating insights were offered.

Aditya Dev Sood brought up the issue of trust in relation to the technologies we use, offering the theory that there is, globally, a crisis of trust – where people worldwide are finding that their governments, bureaucracies and institutions have failed them – and which has therefore led to new standards of trust: mutuality, probity, reputation. He went on to propose that “these new standards of trust come from the online, social-mediated networked interactions — being online transforms our understanding of what trust can achieve for us and what kind of trust is necessary for us to interact with the world.”

Dr. Sood went on to talk about how social media platforms allow for the kind of instant and widespread connectivity that increases collaboration and innovation, resulting in some really creative uses of social media, such as in the Occupy Wall Street protests. It also shows how social media platforms allow people to respond to new developments faster, more creatively and more effectively than traditional institutions – private or public – and bureaucracies.

Dan Lloyd, speaking more on the use of social media in protests, talked about the recent attempt by the Mubarak regime in Egypt to ban all international telecommunications and internet during the protests. The only reason, he said, that the Egyptian government was able to go so far in regulating and restricting the telecommunications networks is because they maintain a monopoly on these networks, especially the international internet gateways. “There are very few countries in the world who would have been able to take these steps, and the number of countries that are maintaining that monopoly control over networks is diminishing rapidly. The number of platforms and networks that people are now able to connect on has expanded so rapidly that it makes it impossible for governments to control what happens and to impose their will through these communications networks.”

Julia Hobsbawm then redirected the conversation to the more personal ramifications of the heightened connectivity offered by the internet. She spoke of how, though she was overwhelmingly in favor of viewing social media as a liberating influence, there are some unintended consequences of this incredible liberation, such as the fact that sometimes it allows for the public to use its ugly ‘mob-voice,’ there are issues with bullying, the phenomenon of trolling, people are abusive, and you find that women are often more vulnerable to this. Moreover, our lives are coming to be so overly dependent and constantly connected to the telecommunications grid, that we find that there is a growing need to disconnect, to make the time for a “technology Sabbath.”

The discussion touched upon several other aspects of the large question of how technology affects both the individual and the public. Listen to the complete podcast here.