How to free liberty from the clutch of digital dictatorship? 

Technological advancement has shifted the authority from humans to algorithms, raising a host of challenges ranging from threat to liberty to the rise of data colonialism and digital dictatorship.

Urza Karki

  • Read Time 4 min.

For Jean-Jacques Rousseau, liberty is at the root of being human. He states that human beings are free and equal by reason of their nature and so they should remain free and equal. Everybody loves and tries to achieve liberty. The idea of liberty has some social principles and laws of the state. It has been the most powerful weapon in the hands of the unarmed and it has defeated the strong armies of dictators and imperialists opening the path of freedom and progress in the past.

But the technological advancement and the inclusion of technology such as AI in human decision-making reasoning has shifted the authority from humans to algorithms, raising a host of challenges ranging from threat to liberty to the rise of data colonialism and digital dictatorship.

Initially, the introduction and spread of new technologies such as social media and the Internet made authoritarian regimes more vulnerable to protests. It was thought that with unfettered access to information authoritarian regimes can be challenged. However, a new reality has emerged. A lot of autocrats have figured out how to use technology to hold on to power. Today authoritarian regimes can buy technology such as surveillance mechanics, bring a couple of trainers from different countries and they can control almost everyone. Yuval Noah Harari presented an excellent example at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2018. “If the North Korean government forces its citizens to wear a bracelet that transmits biometric data to government data centers, the government will be able to monitor how people feel about their leader and about pretty much everything else in their lives,” he said. “They may know more about you than you do.” “What will happen to politics in your country when somebody in Beijing or San Francisco knows the entire medical and personal history of every politician, every judge, and every journalist in your country including all the sexual escapades, all their mental weaknesses, and all their corrupt dealings. Will it still be an independent country or will it become a data colony?” Harari asked. “Enough data is more powerful than hundreds or thousands of soldiers to control a country.”

Curtailing liberty

On June 14, 2014, China’s State Council announced a plan to establish a social credit system, which would assign “social credit” scores to citizens based on their behavior. If the citizens follow all the rules and fulfill all their responsibilities, their credit goes up and it goes down if they are found engaged in any sort of dishonest or negative activities. For example, the social credit score of Liu Hu, a Chinese journalist, placed him on an untrustworthy list, and as a result, he was prohibited from flying, buying a home, and sending his child to private school.

In most autocratic regimes, governmental interference in digital infrastructure and communication is commonplace. Governments control where and when modern communication technology (ICT) is introduced in the first place, who gets access to it, and what information is communicated. This influence occurs for political motives—to ban opposition activists from mobilizing their followers online, to contain the spread of information that is critical of the regime, or to spy on the population to identify potential dissenters. Examples include Hosni Mubarak’s complete internet shutdown in January 2011 or the censoring of online content deemed unacceptable by the Chinese government.  Dictatorships use technologies to supercharge long-standing survival tactics and allow autocrats to not only manipulate and control the citizens but also identify their opponents and eliminate them.

Over the past decades, liberty has faced a lot of constraints. Now in the new era, the liberal story is again under the threat of algorithm and digital dictatorship. A huge threat is posed when algorithmic choices and business dynamics shape our exposure to opinion and fact, and the range of sources from which we get them. The data processing and analysis capabilities of AI can also enable surveillance on a scale never seen before, can identify and discriminate against the most vulnerable, and may revolutionize the economy so quickly no job retraining program can possibly keep up.

The artificial intelligence revolution will pose a huge threat to individuals’ liberty to work as automation replaces a lot of manual jobs. Indeed, a lot of job opportunities will be irrelevant. If a 50-year-old gardener loses his job because of the advanced farming system, he can neither participate in program or software designing nor get into other alternative jobs. In the past, people faced exploitation and had to lose their jobs, and gradually people had to lose their jobs due to irrelevance. It is much worse to be irrelevant than to be exploited.

In the 19th century, countries like Britain and Japan industrialized first and they went to conquer and exploit most of the world. The same thing might happen in the 21st century with AI. We are already in the midst of an AI arms race, which China and the US are leading leaving most countries far behind. AI will create a lot of wealth in high-tech companies while others will either go bankrupt or become exploited data colonies.

Harari mentions that if you know enough biological knowledge along with computing power and data, you can hack one’s body, brain, and life. One can understand you better than yourself. This manifests the threat of liberty to a great extent because once the algorithm has the ability to know your personality, political views, sexual preferences, weaknesses, fears, desires, hopes, and many more, it will be able to not only predict your decisions and feelings but also manipulate them and ultimately take decisions for us, says Harari. According to him, this is already happening today as billions of people are driven by news on Facebook; the Google algorithm tells us what is true, Netflix/YouTube tells us what to watch and the Amazon tells us what to buy. If the algorithm is to control everything, says Harari, there will be no meaning of human life and we become hackable animals.

If liberty is under constant threat due to algorithms and digital dictatorship, then what is the solution? Blockchain technology may be an answer. Blockchain technology is a decentralized system and it is not necessary to work with a third-party organization or with the central administrator. If we use decentralized technology like Ethereum or Polygon Blockchain to launch any kind of apps like Facebook or Google, now it becomes really hard to monitor or track information because it runs in different nodes. Thus Blockchain technology can ensure freedom and liberty to humanity.

Urza Karki is pursuing her Master’s degree at the Institute of Advanced Communication, Education and Research (IACER).