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Subscribing to fairy tales

Once upon a time, you could purchase a copy of some software such as an operating system or spreadsheet programme on a CD-ROM and install it on your laptop or desktop computers. If your computer crashed, you could always reinstall the software since you were in possession of the CD-ROM. This is no longer the case since IT companies such as Microsoft changed their business models — software cannot be purchased but only licensed (read ‘rented’) on an annual subscription basis using one cloud or another. These companies now control how, when and where their software can be used by you. More importantly, any documents you create are also placed on the cloud by default. For instant access, presumably. Note that if you exceed preset cloud storage limits, there is a monthly fee. It is only a matter of time before secondary storage devices such as optical discs and USB flash memory disappear from stores, and you are forced to rely on subscription-based cloud storage. Incidentally, Microsoft Office is used by 1.2 billion people worldwide and it is now 100% subscription-based.

Once upon a time, Facebook used to be free, but it came with a steep cost — putting up with incessant and annoying advertisements. If you want an ad-free ‘experience’ with Facebook in Europe, you will need to fork out upwards of $11 a month for web and $14 for smartphone apps. This is all so reminiscent of neighbourhood thugs promising not to beat you up if you gave them your daily lunch money. How long will it be before each of the two billion active Facebook users (330 million are in India) are charged a fee for using the social media platform?

Once upon a time, you used to be able to watch tons of free movies and TV shows on streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu (owned by Disney). Not anymore. Globally, Netflix has around 250 million paid subscribers.

If you are not completely surprised by what you just read, congratulations. You must be someone who follows technological and political indicators across the globe.

In December 1989, the world’s first website ‘info.cern.ch’ was created in Geneva, Switzerland, by Tim Berners Lee, the inventor of the world-wide web. Now, there are millions of websites across the globe. 100% of Qatar has internet access and everyone is on Facebook. More than 80% of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are also on Facebook. Only a third of Syria has internet access, but they are all on Facebook.

A 100% participation in social media is possible only if basic ‘net neutrality’ principles, such as equal access to any website, are not required or enforced and the default home page on your laptop or smartphone browser is some social media platform. For example, the home page of smartphones sold in Myanmar is Facebook and the smartphone owners obtain all their news from Facebook, use the search engine provided by it, and visit other websites only if their links are found in Facebook. Though only 40% of Myanmar has internet access, every one of them is on Facebook.

Extensive citizen engagement with social media platforms, especially Facebook, YouTube and Twitter (now free but soon to be subscription-based) is a Faustian bargain since it gives the illusion of providing transparency in government operations, allows users to post and share any information whose veracity is rarely checked, and allows both governments and corporations to closely monitor the users — whether for stifling dissent or for monetising their data. Facebook has been described as “a company that’s at once the global arbiter of privacy standards and the gatekeeper of facts.”

The ‘Arab Spring’ was touted as a history-changing series of events bringing ‘digital democracy’ to the Middle East through protest movements organised using social media. If anything, the situation has only worsened in the region. The same social media couldn’t bring relief to Syrian refugees, the victims of their President Bashar al-Assad. Only recently has the US government started focusing on the excesses of Big Tech. Since Big Tech cannot make any money in the poorest countries, such countries will remain disconnected unless they have exploitable resources, such as oil (South Sudan) or uranium (Niger).

Companies profit but society pays the price.

In a well-timed move, Twitter and Facebook suspended Donald Trump’s account to “prevent more disinformation and the promotion of violence”. The two companies did nothing in the four years Trump was in office actively promoting lies and stoking hatred.

Twitter and Facebook’s new-found commitment to democracy instantly reminded me of singer and songwriter Bob Dylan’s famous 1965 song ‘Subterranean Home Sick Blues’: “…You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows…”

(Published 11 November 2023, 21:29 IST)

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