The Internet, Data, and Democracy


Irene Kuo

Irene Kuo will be a sophomore this fall at the University of Washington. She plans to major in Accounting, with a minor in Informatics. She developed an interest in the social dynamics of technology in high school, particularly through a course in Information Technology in a Global Society. Kuo would like to do further research on internet equity that situates this question in specific national contexts, especially in Asia.


Douglas Rushkoff, an American media theorist, praised the internet in his book Renaissance Now! Media Ecology and the New Global Narrative, arguing that “[t]he Internet's ability to network human beings is its very life's blood. It fosters communication, collaboration, sharing, helpfulness, and community... The ideas, information, and applications now launching on Web sites around the world capitalize on the transparency, usability, and accessibility that the internet was born to deliver.” The book, published in 2002 during the transition of the internet to Web 2.0, claims that the internet gives people the power to voice their own opinions and dilute hierarchical power structures (Rushkoff 2002, 24). Due to the transformational nature of today’s technologies, many people would agree with Rushkoff’s statement, and to some extent I agree. However, the downsides of the internet are often neglected because for most web users the advantages it has to offer make it a necessity; most do not understand nor question what goes on behind the scenes of each search we execute, each ‘like’ we give, each item we buy. Evgeny Morozov, a writer and researcher who studies the political and social dimensions of technology, states in his 2011 book The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, that “The idea that the Internet favors the oppressed rather than the oppressor is marred by what I call cyber-utopianism: a naive belief in the emancipatory nature of online communication that rests on a stubborn refusal to admit its downside” (xiii). The antithetical opinions of these two internet theorists intrigued me to research further.

In another book, Open Source Democracy, Rushkoff argues that the internet has the power to “provide us with the beginnings of new metaphors for cooperation, new faith in the power of networked activity and new evidence of our ability to participate actively in the authorship of our collective destiny” (Rushkoff 2004). But for all its advantages, the invention of the internet is a double-edged sword. Despite the growing numbers of campaigns and protests online that show democratic behavior, freedom of speech, and seemingly free and equal access to information on the web, the corporate structure of the internet - particularly its search engines - controls and filters information in a way that hampers genuine democracy.

The internet originated from a source of power, the United States government, and no matter how much change is made or how much time passes, its monopolistic structure tempts those in power to take control. As Morozov says, “Technology changes all the time; human nature hardly ever” (315). The “free and open” internet was designed by the United States government as a military tool during the Cold War to maintain communication in the event of a missile strike that would destroy all telecommunications. Following the 1957 launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union, the United States government established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in order to investigate ways to have computers communicate with each other. This led to the foundations of the Internet, and later the World Wide Web where the internet itself could be a “web” of information from which anyone could search and retrieve (Contreras).

But development didn’t stop there; in 2004, the internet we know today as Web 2.0 was born. Unlike the original internet, Web 2.0 emphasizes social networking, content generated by users, and cloud computing (Hosch). For example, Facebook made its debut in 2004, allowing users to create their own content, not simply read information posted by authoritative parties such as news sources and the government. Amazon implemented user reviews, where readers could leave their opinions and ratings of books they’ve read. Moreover, gaming companies started allowing gamers to create modifications and improve the games. The internet was no longer a search and retrieval platform like a library search catalog; it allowed users to interact with each other, and encouraged people to create their own content, not just consume others’. The barriers between corporations and consumers had diminished. With the help of technological advancements, including portable devices such as laptops, tablets, and smartphones, internet access became ubiquitous. Even now, the number of people who access and use the internet continues to grow each year. According to the 2018 report published by GSMA[1], “In 2019, 4G will become the leading mobile network technology worldwide by number of connections (more than 3 billion) [...] The number of Internet of Things (IoT) connections (cellular and non-cellular) will increase more than threefold worldwide between 2017 and 2025, reaching 25 billion” (2-3). This presents a huge market for firms, and given the ease with which digital data can be duplicated and distributed, allows them to reduce the cost of marketing virtually to zero.

Even as access to the internet continues to increase, the democracy of online space is threatened. Internet service providers like Verizon, AT&T, Comcast, and Charter have challenged the 2015 Open Internet Order set by the FCC to maintain net neutrality. Without internet protection laws, these telecom providers can and will not only force companies to pay for internet access speed; they will also have the power to filter and choose what people can and cannot see, taking the internet further away from being free, open and equal. Furthermore, even with such regulations in place, companies have sought to influence and control the internet in subtle ways that create an illusion of equality. As Jodi Tims and Daniel A. Reed point out, “Today’s Internet was largely built by the private sector, which rightly expects to profit from its investment” (11).

Following the increase in users, companies started to take advantage of the large amount of data, known as big data, to compile profiles of preferences and subtly manipulate users. Various industries began using big data to keep track of their customers and generate targeted advertisements to influence consumers’ purchase behaviors. Corporations also began to profit by selling consumer data. For example, if a customer is browsing for speakers but doesn’t purchase, the customer might receive an email soon after, saying something along the lines of “We noticed you looking for speakers. Take another look at the [insert brand looked at by consumer].” Based on purchase history and browsing preferences, Amazon recommends books to its customers and Best Buy sends tech-related products, attached with a discount.

While some consumers may say that targeted advertisements are a convenience to them, these tailored ads are just a small part of a bigger picture known as micro-targeting[2], an innovative and highly-effective political campaign tactic that measures people’s personality from their digital footprints and sends individually tailored message based on the OCEAN (Openness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness, Neuroticism) model (Grassegger and Krogerus). Dr. Michal Kosinski and David Stillwell, researchers at Cambridge University, created a MyPersonality app that allowed users to rate themselves to questions such as “I panic easily” and receive a personality profile right after. After completing the questionnaire, users could opt to share their Facebook profile data with the team for research. Grassegger and Krogerus reflect on the power of data and the uses to which it could be put:

In 2012, Kosinski proved that on the basis of an average of 68 Facebook ‘likes’ by a user, it was possible to predict their skin color (with 95 percent accuracy), their sexual orientation (88 percent accuracy), and their affiliation to the Democratic or Republican party (85 percent). [...] Intelligence, religious affiliation, as well as alcohol, cigarette and drug use, could all be determined. From the data it was even possible to deduce whether someone's parents were divorced. (Grassegger and Krogerus)

The ability to know so much about a person via seemingly insignificant features such as ‘likes’ is powerful, and companies today do not keep track only of ‘likes’; they also keep track of user activities, recording every click and every letter typed even if the search is not executed. For companies, tailoring searches and advertisements to users’ preferences and needs becomes an easy job.

As Americans discovered after the 2016 presidential election, big data is being marshaled not only to change consumer behavior, but to shape political convictions. Cambridge Analytica is a US branch of Strategic Communications Laboratories that specializes in using big data and psychometrics to target certain people to sway political decisions. Its official website describes its mission as “[using] data to change audience behavior” (Cambridge Analytica Hub). In early 2014, Cambridge Analytica reversed Kosinski’s research: using data to search for specific profiles to target instead of using data to deduce profiles. During the 2016 presidential election, Cambridge Analytica’s chief executive officer, Alexander Nix, was Trump’s digital strategy man, and in addition to the lawsuit filed in April, 2018 against Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg for leaking user data to the company, there is evidence that the company was involved with the Brexit campaign, as well.

Social media such as Facebook is not just a communication platform. According to Brad Parscale, Trump’s campaign digital director, “Facebook provided a critical role of finding new potential donors and moving them over to our donor database [and it] was the single most important platform to help grow [our] fundraising base.” (Dejean). User data can easily be bought by third parties and compiled to form a realistic depiction of personality, preferences, fears, and needs, making people vulnerable to manipulation and persuasion. “Dark posts” is a term that Grassegger and Krogerus use to refer to the type of filtered messages highlighting Hillary Clinton’s failures that were shown only to specific people before the 2016 election in order to suppress their support for Clinton. Though Zuckerberg denies Facebook’s influence, many have expressed their concern.

Similar to Facebook, the other companies in the “Big Four”—Google, Apple, and Amazon—strive to achieve the monopolistic control of being the internet, not just being a part of it. This is problematic because it creates a slippery slope: more data gathered, better ads generated, more profit earned, the company moves up the ladder, and repeat. In 2013, Facebook launched the project, striving to give users free access to the internet and connecting the whole world. On the surface it may seem philanthropic, but it was Zuckerberg’s way of making his platform a necessity to the public to increase profits. By 2018, Facebook had almost 100 million users, which is 60 million more than two years before (Shearer and Gottfried). Significantly, 65% of Nigerians and 61% of Indians believed that Facebook was the internet, and many referred to being on Facebook rather than on the internet (Polymatter). In a survey conducted in 2017, 55% of Americans ages 50 or older report getting news on social media sites, and 78% under 50 do. Furthermore, the survey also showed that non-Caucasians are more likely to get news on social media (Shearer and Gottfried). Each company provides different benefits to attract users to use their internet platform. For instance, Google claims that its project called Accelerated Mobile Page (hereafter referred to as AMP) will remove ads and redundant background usage that slow down users' internet; if users switch to retrieving the same information on Google News, this problem will disappear. Similarly, Facebook allows users to bypass subscription fees to news websites like the Wall Street Journal (Polymatter). Though users get these benefits, they are unaware that the company can choose what information is displayed. The danger of this monopoly lies in people not being able to get the full story, and what they read is filtered through the personal biases of the handful of key players in power.

Progress to understanding the biases of social media and news sources has been made, but a there much more internet inequity than most people know, and the largest overlooked aspect is the search engines we use every day. Companies like Google, a firm that owns the most used search engine in the world, have the ability to choose and decide what users first see when searching the web. For instance, when searching “interesting things to do,” the suggestions automatically pop up the location you are in or around. This function is called autocomplete, and we thank Google for making our searches faster and our lives more convenient. However, this is a simple but evidential example substantiating the argument that Internet inequity exists by selectively showing information based on personality and preferences. Even though search engines and software may not have opinions, the people who built them do. Google’s autocomplete function can easily influence searches through algorithms. As Solon and Levin point out, through the autocomplete function, “Google’s search algorithm appears to be systematically promoting information that is either false or slanted with an extreme rightwing bias on subjects as varied as climate change and homosexuality” (Solon and Levin). Solon and Levin provide some examples, such as searching “global warming is”; Google’s top three suggestions are “fake”, “not real”, “a hoax.” When searching “abortion is,” the first suggestion is “illegal.” In the article, Robert Epstein, a researcher who spent four years researching Google searches, states that people at the company constantly make adjustments behind the scenes; he calls this the search engine manipulation effect (SEME). “It’s absurd for them to say everything is automated,” Epstein argues.

On the other hand, Jack Nicas cites research conducted by The University of Maryland and CanIRank arguing that Google leans liberal, but not on purpose. The researchers brought in two conservatives and two liberals with backgrounds in politics, and asked them to rank each page on a political spectrum on a one-to-five-point scale, with five being the most conservative. Of the roughly 2000 pages analyzed, 31% were rated as liberal, 22% were rated as conservative, and 41% were neutral. For instance, “search results for ‘minimum wage’ slanted liberal…while results for ‘does gun control reduce crime’ slanted conservative” (Nicas). Nicas calls the internet a popularity engine, and proposes that the reason internet searches seem biased is that the more frequently resources are searched and clicked, the earlier they show up. Therefore, whoever’s opinion is the majority will dominate searches. The irony exists in the original purpose of Web 2.0: a democratizing space where minorities could voice their opinions. Sadly, facts say otherwise. Both explanations confirm that internet searches are in fact biased. These biases, intentional or not, unconsciously impact how internet users perceive the world, and may even influence the way people vote.

Micah Sifry reflects:

In the early days of the Internet, we thought that the rise of connection technologies would give ordinary voters all kinds of ways to band together, have a voice, and shift power from insiders to outsiders, from entrenched incumbents to vibrant challengers. That has happened. But what we failed to recognize was how much power Internet users were giving away at the same time to data aggregators and brokers like Facebook, Google, and the many intermediaries amassing their own data troves as well (not to mention the NSA) (Sifry).

Post-Cambridge Analytica, people are more aware of privacy issues on the internet. However, there is much more we need to learn in order to protect ourselves from companies taking advantage of our ignorance. First of all, we need to understand that the internet is not free but a trade. Sifry’s sarcastic description is not only amusing but accurate: “You give us intimate personal data, and we give you magical services for free.” People around the world, especially in the United States, are deleting their Facebook accounts because they care more about the political use of their personal data than about advertisements for shoes. What if they learned that Facebook is just the tip of the iceberg? Would they quit the internet to escape the inequality and exclusion it embodies? Would you?


[1] The GSMA represents the interests of mobile operators worldwide, uniting nearly 800 operators with more than 300 companies in the broader mobile ecosystem, including handset and device makers, software companies, equipment providers and internet companies, as well as organizations in adjacent industry sectors.

[2] Micro-targeting is a marketing strategy that uses consumer data and demographics to predict and influence behavior through hyper-targeted advertising.

Works Cited

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Rushkoff, Douglas. Renaissance Now! Media Ecology and the New Global Narrative. Hampton Press, 2002.

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