The utopia of cyber freedom is showing its darker side more and more clearly. Because the data that everyone generates every day is used in very different ways – depending, for example, on where you live and how much money you have at your disposal. Technological progress is thus taking place on the backs of people who are marginalised due to discrimination and fewer privileges. Frederike Kaltheuner and Nele Obermüller explain the damage that technologies can do in their essay.
In the imagination of the techno-utopians of the 1990s, the internet would create a bodiless space – a space that was both equalising and equally accessible to all. “We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth,” proclaimed John Perry Barlow in his 1996 manifesto “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace”. Back in those early days of cyber-libertarian fantasy, much less was said about what would happen once you were online, or how exactly people from around the world with different economic means would get online in the first place.
As of October 2019, more than half of the world’s population – a staggering 4.48 billion people – are online. For many of these people, access to online spaces was made possible by cheap smartphones that bring low-cost internet to emerging markets. But inexpensive technologies often entail hidden costs. Many cheap phones get shipped with poor security and some even harvest people’s data by design and by default. For instance, in 2018 the “Wall Street Journal” reported that a popular smartphone sold in Myanmar and Cambodia, the Chinese-made Singtech P10, comes with a pre-loaded app that cannot be deleted and that sends the owner’s live location to an advertising firm in Taiwan. The hidden cost, therefore, is often access to people’s data.