Article – The public sphere and the powerful algorithms of the Internet

The public sphere and the powerful algorithms of the Internet

Paulo Sa Elias*

We will not be able to preserve a “free Internet” without firm and persistent questioning of its relationship with military, political and economic power. Jürgen Habermas has shown us the role that public spaces (outside of government control) played in the XVIII century by allowing society to criticize and think freely.

At that time, these spaces were found in libraries, cafés, restaurants and other places appropriate for discussion and reflection. Some were closed or threatened with closure. Today, these spaces still exist, but, sadly, they are dwindling—and here in Brazil, still suffer unbelievable, almost daily intrusions. The print newspaper follows this melancholic downward spiral, while the enlightened desperately try to keep alive—at least—the journalism of the print newspaper. At the very least.

“We need to keep the Internet, at all costs, outside the control of the state and large economic groups with their powerful algorithms.”

A new public space has emerged of undeniable importance, especially for future generations: the Internet. And we need to keep it, at all costs, outside the control of the state and large economic groups with their powerful algorithms designed to indoctrinate, regardless of the denomination. The expansion of the public sphere, according to Habermas, provided a valuable opportunity for society to question the authority of the representative culture of the state, especially at the time of the French Revolution in 1789. Imagine now with the Internet. There is no doubt that we have found a powerful and extremely valuable space to exercise this expansion and protect the interests of citizens against abuses of power and even in the struggle between classes. Like Noam Chomsky, when he called attention to the incompatibility of rhetorical allegations made by the state and its true methods of exercising power.

Algorithms are silently taking control of the Internet, with a wide range of political, military and economic interests. Given this scenario, it is perfectly reasonable to imagine the existence of companies that appear to be conventional corporations, but are actually ingenious intelligence programs designed by the military and government for the 21st century, involving numerous sectors of information technology, such as: remote sensing, social network analysis, facial recognition, big data, data mining, storage of genetic data and a multitude of other impressive things.

So as not to repeat what we have already learned from the inimitable Aldous Huxley and George Orwell, let us turn to Jean-François Lyotard, who spoke of the “mercantilization of knowledge.” Information as the product of purchase and sale. Lyotard alerted us to information technology, telematics and the control of the flow of knowledge by the major business groups and by the state, deciding who and when a certain type of knowledge could be accessed. This is occurring on the Internet, where it is capable of much more than swaying legal decisions. Its main mission is targeting an entire generation of young people connected to the Internet who are, sadly, disconnected from the wealth of books and even the journalism of the print newspaper. Young people are surfing the Internet, studying and learning from information that the powerful algorithms want them to see. And this is deadly serious, and needs to be discussed and observed with great interest.

(*) Paulo Sa Elias, 42, is a university professor and attorney of law. Master’s degree in law from UNESP (Sao Paulo’s State University, Brazil). Author of the blog and Twitter @psael

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