The digital world appears flat – like a single, brightly illuminated surface. In this world, the difference between freedom and security no longer applies – there is only security. Nowadays, we can hardly distinguish between those who exercise their freedom to collect and publicly share their private data and those external organisations which mine the web for such data through classical surveillance methods. Those who voluntarily leave a trail of personal data on the Internet are inadvertent partners of private-business and state “data crunchers” which monitor these activities. The concept of digital freedom – that a user has the power to allow his/her personal data to be used or shared – is actually an illusion that circulates throughout this flat world. This illusion is becoming more real with the growing inability of an ever increasing share of the population to understand – even intuitively – the technological functions and relationships. In order to exercise the right to control one’s personal information and make it
politically effective, people have to show an interest in what happens behind the increasingly simplified user interfaces. In short, people must show interest not only in the front end where users interact and where autonomous action is reduced to the choices offered in the interface programmed by others, but also in the unattractive and complex underside of the digital world – the back end, to which only the owners and administrators have access. On the one side, there is the visible information, and on the other, the inconceivable masses of data which evade access.
As our understanding of the digital world increases, we become aware of the central constraints on freedom which prevail today. It is here we begin to recognise the illusions of self-determination and think about freedom in a new way. How autonomous can freedom be today? What might “grass-roots” security look like? What rights will we have to fight for to attain it?