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What is the future of the open internet?

As mobile technology moves on from passcodes to introduce fingerprint and facial recognition user ID, it appears that yet another physical part of ourselves and our very identity is being wholly perhaps even alarmingly integrated with the digital world.

At the Lush Creative Showcase 2017, experts came together to discuss the future of the open internet, debating the relationship between data capture, our right to privacy, and the role of censorship, as the internet becomes more and more connected with personal identities.

Earlier this year, Loose Women presenter Nadia Sawalha and her daughter Maddie took to the internet to voice concerns over the latest Snapchat development, where users are able to see their contacts’ exact locations and activities on a map. The feature, which can be turned off in ‘ghost mode,’ is one example of privacy being completely stripped away, leaving the user and their private life laid bare. The 28 million views Nadia’s video received show the importance of debating the topic of privacy - and asking how far we should go in sharing what would once have been private information - but the reactions were polarised.

Nadia’s Loose Women colleague, the presenter Kaye Adams, took the chair at the Open Internet Panel, where the ethical issue of data capture was debated.

Should we be regulating the internet more?

Regulation was the big theme for the panel, but the question is: regulation by whom and if we take that route, how much should we regulate? Whether government or big businesses are pulling the virtual strings, free speech and privacy find themselves in a difficult relationship. If the scales tip too far in one direction, the other is in peril, and there are strong arguments in support of both sides.

Joining the panel was Renate Samson, the chief executive of Big Brother Watch, a group founded to expose the extent of mass surveillance in the UK. While she does not believe the internet should be regulated as a whole, she would welcome a moral and philosophical conversation about how we engage with the internet, specifically around the dangers and risks of ID and data capture.

Clive Stafford Smith, founder of human rights organisation Reprieve, is more concerned with privacy violations, and with governments around the world using privacy to cover up their secret activities. He joined the panel fresh from announcing a new campaign about state-sponsored assassinations, with a US kill list that is being informed by metadata.

Clamping down on privacy abuses can have a damaging effect on free speech, and Clive says that we should protect people against the abuse of information, rather than suppress it.

“I’m really pleased about a drone that’s used to deliver pizza to me. I just don’t want them to deliver a hellfire missile,” he says, making an alarming point with his joke. “And I’m really pleased about my data being used to do studies about human beings to help improve health - I just don’t want it to be used for nefarious purposes. The way to protect ourselves, it seems to me, is for us to defend the people who are already being abused.”

Taking control of personal data

While some companies are sweeping up data from our devices, Renate Samson says we do have a choice. By switching off location services, and denying apps permission to access microphones and cameras, your personal data can be better protected.

For her, it is all about choice: “I don’t expect everybody to know everything about me. I want to tell people what I want to tell them. I don’t want people looking into what I’m doing; I don’t want people trying to assert who I should vote for; what I should think; what books I might like. I want the choice to be able to explore that for myself.”

To be able to better protect and control their data, people need to show that they care about these issues, she adds.

Nikki Maksimovic, the UK manager of tree-planting search-engine Ecosia, was also on the panel. She spoke about big businesses collecting data, and how it may very likely be paving the way for data capture by artificial intelligence, dispensing with the need to monitor your search engine activity and history and allowing companies to sell directly to you based on the information they hold about you and your e-identity. Environmental and social concerns, she says, are clearly not high priorities for data-collecting companies being driven solely by profits.

The digital citizens of Estonia

One challenge of regulating data in a virtual space, is that the internet does not respect boundaries. However, one country has created a model that puts up digital borders, and allows people transparency around their data.

Estonia has introduced e-residency, where citizens are given an e-ID card linked to an online government platform. Here, people can do any number of things from paying taxes to voting. Global citizens can also join the e-nation to register a business.

Renate Samson says: “The important part about the Estonia model, is that you have an identity with the Government, but the Government is then required to inform you of every time it accesses your data and tell you why. Our government isn’t brave enough to do that.”

The country is encouraging others to follow suit, but the UK has very different regulations around personal data.

Under the Investigatory Powers Act, a number of organisations have the legal right to access the web browsing history of people in the UK. In line with the Act, online organisations will now be required to decrypt and hand over information when requested to do so. Police and security services also have new powers to hack into computers and phones. Cameras or microphones can be controlled, files can be accessed, and passwords can be read.

There is an alternative digital world vision. In Renate’s world, it is one where citizens know when the Government has accessed, shared, or used their data, which means they can then dispute those decisions. For Nikki, it is one involving ownership of our own data. For Clive, the utopia is total free speech where people do not abuse personal privacy. This, he says, is a goal we should keep in mind as we make decisions about the future of the internet and our collective engagement with it.

Watch the panel on Lush Player.

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