A timely piece in Rest of World on the tightening of regulations on the use of VPNs by the Modi administration in India. In this instance, the enforcement of visibility is carried out at the business level, with a regulatory requirement of customer data retention placed on VPN providers. This new policy may precipitate the exit from the Indian market of certain foreign companies, such as Proton VPN (which is headquartered in Switzerland).
A blanket requirement of data collection on VPN use at the source, such as in the Indian case, strongly suggests that the underlying goals of the policy are the unfettered operation of mass surveillance and a chilling effect on stigmatized activity online, since more targeted and discriminating solutions exist technically to deal with specific forms of malfeasance and lawbreaking behind VPNs. In this case (as in the resort to prolonged internet shutdowns), Indian digital policies can be seen to inhabit a troubling hybrid zone, in which a democratic government acts in ways more readily associated with authoritarian regimes. In general, the hardening of India’s policymaking on IT, including a muscular assertion of its data sovereignty, cannot easily be disentangled from geopolitical considerations (specifically, concern over Chinese influence), but has also undeniably benefited the government’s domestic agenda and its electoral and interest coalition.
A recent article in Wired (via /.) describes North Korean experiences with jailbreaking smartphones for access to forbidden foreign content. It would appear that the North Korean government’s system for surveilling online activity is much more invasive than its Chinese counterpart, but less technically sophisticated.
An interesting, thoughtful article by Michelle Santiago Cortés in The Cut last week looks at affective relationships with algorithms and their role in shaping our identities.
Three parts of the analysis specifically stood out to me. The first revolves around our typical lack of knowledge of algorithms: Cortés’ story about
some YouTube alpha male […] out there uploading videos promising straight men advice on how to “hack” the Tinder algorithm to date like kingsis clearly only the tip of a gigantic societal iceberg, a cargo-culture-as-way-of-life involving pretty much everyone in the remotest, most diverse walks of life. The ever-evolving nature of these algorithms compounds the obfuscation effect, making end-users’ strategic attempts, whether exploitation- or resistance-focused, generally appear puerile.
Second, the clarity with which Cortés encapsulated the main tradeoff in the relationship was truly apt:
[w]e are, to varying degrees, okay with being surveilled as long as we get to feel seen.
The assertion of visibility and assurance of recognition are two of the key assets algorithmic systems offer their users, and their value can hardly be minimized as mere late-consumerist narcissism.
Finally, the comparison between algorithmic portraits of personality and astrology was extremely telling: closing the behavioral loop from algorithmic interaction to the redefinition of one’s own identity on the basis of the algorithm’s inevitably distorting mirror is still a matter of choice, or rather, a sensibility that can be honed and socialized regarding the most empowering and nurturing use of what is ultimately a hermeneutic tool. Of course, such a benign conclusion rests on the ambit of application of such technologies: music videos, entertainment, dating. As soon as our contemporary astrological devices are put in charge of directing outcomes in the field of political economy and public policy, the moral calculus rapidly shifts.
A few interesting news items in the past twenty-four hours illustrate the far-reaching impact of blockchain technology and its growing entanglement with structural political and economic realities. Kosovo has moved to ban cryptocurrency mining within its borders, in the face of a countrywide energy crisis. Meanwhile, The Guardian reports that the ongoing political unrest in Kazakhstan has led to a crisis for global bitcoin mining, as the government shuts down the nation’s internet backbone to attempt to thwart protesters’ communications. Finally, Casey Newton’s Platformer blog is running a piece on Signal’s imminent foray into cryptocurrency integration: Newton’s take is that this disruption is needless provocation of US authorities and may result in finally coalescing sufficient political will to outlaw end-to-end encryption outright, a move for which many voices worldwide have long been advocating.
Whatever the outcome of these specific dossiers, the data points are fast accumulating to support the claim that blockchain has broken through to mainstream status: going forward, it will be seen as a key variable shaping our future, alongside such old twentieth century factors as the right to free expression or the price of oil.
A long blog post on Olivier Ertzscheid’s personal website [in French] tackles the ideological orientation of the major social media platforms from a variety of points of view (the political leanings of software developers, of bosses, of companies, the politics of content moderation, political correctness, the revolving door with government and political parties, the intrinsic suitability of different ideologies to algorithmic amplification, and so forth).
The conclusions are quite provocative: although algorithms and social media platforms are both demonstrably biased and possessed of independent causal agency, amplifying, steering, and coarsening our public debate, in the end it is simply those with greater resources, material, social, cultural, etc., whose voices are amplified. Algorithms skew to the right because so does our society.