Defending the Digital Frontier: Why We Need a Civil Rights Framework for the Internet

A laptop showing the Facebook logo is held alongside a Cambridge Analytica sign at the entrance to the building housing the offices of Cambridge Analytica, in central London on March 21, 2018. (Photo: Daniel Leal-Olivas / AFP / Getty Images)A laptop showing the Facebook logo is held alongside a Cambridge Analytica sign at the entrance to the building housing the offices of Cambridge Analytica, in central London on March 21, 2018. (Photo: Daniel Leal-Olivas / AFP / Getty Images)

The scandal of Cambridge Analytica’s misuse of Facebook data, and criticisms of both Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook as a platform, have generated a popular drive for users to delete the platform entirely. The hashtag #DeleteFacebook trended nationally earlier this week, giving its message an audience of over 43 million Twitter users since the scandal broke. After a period of ill-advised silence, Mark Zuckerberg issued a statement on Wednesday in which he assumed responsibility for the data breach and promised new guidelines that would make user data more secure in the future. However, it seems unlikely that either new guidelines or a wave of Facebook deletions will address the core problem this incident highlights: a largely unregulated digital landscape, in which voter manipulation and the exploitation of personal data are relatively unchecked.

To fully fathom the magnitude of what’s at stake, we must first understand that the consumption of data, for Trumpian purposes, is not simply about winning or losing a presidential race. Cambridge Analytica’s data abuses were overseen by Trump’s former advisor/kingmaker Steve Bannon — a man who has told members of the National Front to wear the label of “racist” with pride, and who has made no effort to conceal his hopes for a global race war. There is a reason that 44 states and the District of Columbia refused to provide certain types of voter information to the Trump administration’s Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, a now-defunct project whose stated purpose was to address a voter fraud epidemic — despite vast amounts of evidence that no such epidemic exists. Trump himself responded to the states’ hesitation by saying that their lack of cooperation suggested they had something to hide. In truth, the widespread refusal was a crucial precedent in a presidency that would continue to pit state and local governments against Trump’s agenda.

We don’t know exactly what the Trump administration would have done with that data, but we do know that the Republican Party has treated “voter fraud” as a major political priority in recent years, and has benefited greatly from doing so. We also know that the president is willing to exploit any avenue, including social media data, in his quest to deport undocumented people living in the United States, and that immigration activists are being targeted with great enthusiasm under his reign, while some Black and Native organizers have been treated as terrorists by law enforcement.

As Malkia Cyril, the executive director of the Oakland-based Center for Media Justice and co-founder of the Media Action Grassroots Network (MAG-Net), told Truthout this week, “Data protection is not about protecting privacy; it never was. It’s about protecting democracy. Now, more than ever, the US needs civil rights legislation that protects the data of vulnerable communities.”

Now, having been presented with a concrete example of what Trumpian data collection looks like, we should be asking ourselves what this means across the larger digital landscape. Many have argued that individuals should delete Facebook over this breach of trust — as there were apparently still people out there who trusted Facebook to keep their information private — but that action falls short for a number of reasons.

For one, it’s a suggestion that probably won’t be embraced by most users. This isn’t the first time that the company has enraged its user base and generated calls for people to log off. From violations of privacy to a bizarre scandal over the company partnering with academics from Cornell and the University of California to run a psychological experiment on the platform’s users, Facebook has weathered user fury in the past. Facebook can do this because it is pervasive: It is a thoroughly culturally embedded phenomenon with over 2 billion active users worldwide.

Beyond the application itself, Facebook’s tentacles extend into other areas of many users’ technological existence, with some other apps actually requiring their users to have a Facebook account. In addition, many apps have enabled users to sign up for their services using their Facebook accounts, thus entangling Facebook with everything from ride-share services to dating apps and takeout orders. Rather than deleting each of those accounts, and creating new accounts that aren’t linked to Facebook, most users will probably keep their tangled web of apps intact, including Facebook.

So, while the company appears to be taking a serious beating this week, with a 10.5 percent drop in market value (which translates to about $57 billion), it’s unlikely that it will be brought down. And if history is any indication, some of those who log off in anger will return. After all, many of us have become socially reliant on apps like Facebook — and whether or not we should be is a different question than what is likely to happen in the wake of this scandal.

Another reason the #DeleteFacebook plan falls short is that the problem is much larger than one platform. From Russian trolls to data breaches, we must understand that many of us, as internet users, are living a significant part of our lives in an exposed territory, and that anyone interacting within that territory is vulnerable to a variety of attacks. Social media has created new possibilities for those who want to harass and terrorize marginalized people.

There has been significant discussion of Russian trolls and the part they may have played in the last election, but less discussion of what that trolling generates: mobs of online voices descending on marginalized people, wielding far more than mere disagreement. Trumpian trolls foster anti-Blackness and other bigotries in plain view, normalizing vulgar, racist attacks on the marginalized, while also levelling threats and contributing to an environment of fear and intimidation for those on the receiving end of Trumpian bigotries.

As a newer political frontier, the internet has provided a space for activities that would be easier to interrupt in the “real world.” This aspect of online culture has been used for both good and evil. Meanwhile, what little oversight has emerged has frequently targeted marginalized people, while letting those who harass them off the hook.

Facebook’s controversial 2014 study examined the concept of “emotional contagion” — the phenomenon of having one person’s emotions and related behaviors directly trigger similar emotions and behaviors in other people. Armed with such findings, and the Facebook data of millions of Americans, it’s not hard to imagine what a skilled propaganda expert like Steve Bannon, who romanticizes racial unrest, might fuel with such information. After all, Bannon helped Trump win the election with digital content. An online environment that normalizes fascistic politics and white nationalism has helped normalize “real-world” expressions of such politics, such the violence in Charlottesville.

Thanks to the work of net neutrality activists, the connectedness of digital and civil rights, while under-discussed, is not wholly new. When we examine the internet at large as a racialized landscape, the need for civil rights protections in online spaces becomes even more obvious. A comprehensive vision of digital civil rights has not been widely proposed, but we can see the foundations of such a movement in the work of organizations like the Media Action Grassroots Network (MAG-Net), a coalition of 175 grassroots community groups that tackles issues ranging from “prison phone justice” to high tech surveillance and the abuse of Big Data.

MAG-Net has also been a driving force behind the net neutrality movement. The group’s website states that its members represent cross-section of disenfranchised groups and communities — including immigrants, communities of color, Indigenous peoples, and working class and queer communities — “all seeking to build a progressive social movement with the power to transform media conditions and rules for these constituencies.” To ensure our digital rights, a multi-pronged approach, like MAG-Net’s, that accounts for differing forms of oppression, will surely be necessary.

The current regulatory climate is, of course, not encouraging. With the demise of net neutrality, internet users are now faced with a slew of uncertainties. We must view the destruction of net neutrality, the use of online platforms to abuse marginalized people, and data breaches like the Cambridge Analytica scandal as being connected, or we will have little hope of developing a cohesive vision of what a just internet could look like.

The problem is not isolated to one platform, however powerful that platform might be. The larger problem is that our rights are not being protected, and that we the public have yet to unite behind a vision of what digital rights should look like. But as we have learned from the ascent of Donald Trump, and the machinations of Steve Bannon, the exploitation of an under-regulated digital world can lead to real-world catastrophes we cannot simply log out of.

In truth, the digital age has created a new frontier for political manipulation, and like most unregulated frontiers, it is being thoroughly abused. And even if we are cavalier about our own privacy, we must ask ourselves: Who is hurt the most in the current political climate by the exploitation of personal data? The internet, whose use has increased globally from 14 million users in 1993 to over 3 billion users today, created a new frontier for political manipulation, exploitation and abuse. It’s a world where all the old tricks of dirty politics are new again, with a veritable playland of information and vulnerabilities to exploit. And right now, with Trump and the Republicans in power, it is open season on those vulnerabilities.

However, intervention is possible. In Facebook’s case, a whistleblower has allowed the public to make informed demands for accountability. That’s not to say Facebook has become a safe place for your information, but there have been consequences for the platform’s misuse of information. Going forward, new policies will exist that may benefit people who don’t plan to leave the platform. In many cases, of course, it will take more than the light of day to restrain the manipulation at work. That’s why we need a comprehensive vision of what our civil rights look like in the digital realm, and what it would take, on paper, to defend those rights. Demands for greater algorithm transparency, data protection, and policies that protect the rights of marginalized people must loom larger in the public discourse.

Net neutrality activists have long said that internet access is a civil rights issue. Perhaps it’s time we all examined what’s become of this digital frontier we’ve all flocked to, because we are going to have to defend it.