In the beginning there was hope. We were supposed to be free. In the Declaration of

Fabrice Aza

Independence of the Cyberspace of 1996, late John P. Barlow wrote the following: “Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather. We have no elected government, nor are we likely to have one, so I address you with no greater authority than that with which liberty itself always speaks. I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us. You have no moral right to rule us nor do you possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear.” [1] Unfortunately, it was just a dream.

The digital revolution has brought a profound change to our society as a whole and the way people and businesses perceive and use personal data. On a technical aspect, we can witness today the datafication of the world by new powerful means which enable the collection, storing, reproduction and analysis of personal data. On an economic aspect and à l’ère de l’économie de la donnée, many firms, such as Google, Facebook or Amazon have adapted their business model so as to optimise and collect intensively personal data (for targeted marketing purposes mainly). As you may know, such switch has enabled them to flourish with massive profits. Finally, on a social and cultural aspects, these changes can be analysed by the rapid adoption and use of internet by individuals to carry out nearly all daily life activities (mobile apps to regulate and monitor our health and sleep, to check the latest news, buying and selling online, to socialise by sharing pictures or statuses etc.), exposing on the other hand and without any sort of reluctance, our personal data. [2]

While Google, Amazon, Microsoft and Facebook were making billions of profits, we were the ones who got addicted to their very attractive and innovative products and services to such an extent that it is virtually insuperable to live off « the grid » in the modern era [3]. Unfortunately, these big tech firms have today become such a pervasive force in our modern society.

Due to this extreme reliance on the internet and its services, it will be even fair to say today that the dichotomy that existed between the physical world and the virtual world has now disappeared to such an extent that we should even ask ourselves if our fundamental rights, namely the right to privacy, freedom of speech and freedom to hold an opinion, are still relevant today and to what extent can we still enjoy them as an individual. [4]

The Cambridge Analytica scandal illustrates well how our fundamental rights have been hindered but also, how our beloved cyberspace, born free, became like the dystopian novel of G. Orwell, 1984. As reported by The Observer [5], Cambridge Analytica used Facebook users’ personal data without any prior authorisation as from 2014 to build a system that could profile voters around the world, in order to target them with tailor-made political adverts with the intent to manipulate elections and even, intimidate voters like it was the case during the 2015 elections in Nigeria where videos were shared online depicting people being dismembered and murdered as reported by Christopher Wylie, the Facebook data whistle-blower[6].

Besides the blatant breach to our right to privacy and data protection laws in this scandal, the core essence of our freedom of speech and freedom to hold an opinion were also attacked here. Why would one want to enjoy one of his fundamental rights, that is the right to speak freely and hold an opinion on the internet when there is a high risk that his political opinion information is later on, sold to political parties? How can States discourage low turnout during elections when the voter may fear retaliation from the elected government later on? Given the consequences of this scandal on our fundamental rights and its disastrous impact on our democracy, it would be absolutely ridiculous to accept Mr. Zuckerberg’s apologies.

Sadly, many people live today with this illusion that our cyberspace is free, as dreamt by late John P. Barlow. Add the Snowden files to this long list of scandals and you will realise how this free cyberspace has been taken over by States and Private entities. Every activity and data are registered, monitored, analysed and kept for an indefinite period of time. There is no right for we the people to be forgotten or set free.

Given the fact that what can be described as “mass cybersurveillance” is invisible, it becomes simply impossible for the individual to know the extent of the intrusiveness of internet products and services in his private life and how such intrusiveness is negatively impacting on its individual rights. Again, we have to bear some sort of responsibility for easing this intrusiveness. As rightly explained by Mrs. Christiane Féral-Schul and Mr. Christian Paul « …dans l’environnement numérique, propice à la théâtralisation, à l’exposition et à la publicisation de soi, les individus, convaincus que les technologies numériques participent à la construction de leur personnalité et à leur valorisation sociale et professionnelle, mettraient eux-mêmes en danger leur vie privée en échange de services ou d’avantages… » [7].

Unfortunately, the Cambridge Analytica scandal is just the tip of the iceberg…

REFERENCES

  1. John Perry Barlow, A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, 1996, available on https://www.eff.org/cyberspace-independence
  2. Commission de réflexion et de propositions sur le droit et les libertés à l’âge numérique, Le droit et les libertés à l’âge du numérique – repenser la protection de la vie privée et des données à caractère personnel, available on http://www.assemblee-nationale.fr/14/rapports/r3119.asp
  3. Steven Friedland, Drinking from the Fire Hose: How Massive Self-Surveillance and the Internet of Things Are Changing Constitutional Privacy, West Virginia Law Review, Vol. 119, No. 3, 2017
  4. Commission de réflexion et de propositions sur le droit et les libertés à l’âge numérique, Le droit et les libertés à l’âge du numérique – repenser la protection de la vie privée et des données à caractère personnel, available on http://www.assemblee-nationale.fr/14/rapports/r3119.asp
  5. https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/mar/17/cambridge-analytica-facebook-influence-us-election
  6. https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/apr/04/cambridge-analytica-used-violent-video-to-try-to-influence-nigerian-election

Commission de réflexion et de propositions sur le droit et les libertés à l’âge numérique, Le droit et les libertés à l’âge du numérique – repenser la protection de la vie privée et des données à caractère personnel, available on http://www.assemblee-nationale.fr/14/rapports/r3119.asp