Privacy, security, freedom : taking back control of your digital life

Censorship, privacy breaches, data vulnerability… These concerns increasingly influence our relationship with the digital world. Despite awareness, the general public seems to be dominated by a feeling of powerlessness. What are we exposed to ? How can we protect ourselves ? A survey to help you regain control of your digital life.

VPN, encrypted messaging, phishing, … This computer jargon, still unknown to the general public a few years ago, is starting to spread. It has to be said that digital technology is taking up more and more space in our lives. And with it specific societal issues. In 2018, 69% of French people said they were more sensitive than before to the issue of protecting their personal data, according to an Ifop survey commissioned by the CNIL (Commission nationale informatique et liberté). « Edward Snowden’s revelations in 2013 about the vast surveillance network set up by the American intelligence services caused a stir in public opinion, » says Sylvain Steer, a member of the Quadrature du Net, an association that defends fundamental freedoms in the digital environment. In addition to security issues, the omnipresence of digital giants and restrictions on freedom on the internet are causing increasing concern.

Digital identity

Our relationship with the internet is a product of its history. Its ancestor, the American Arpanet project, which made its first connections in 1969, was not intended to become this global network extended to the general public. « At the beginning, it was a network for exchanging information in the military and academic fields, » says Valérie Schafer, network historian and professor of contemporary European history at the University of Luxembourg. It was not until the end of the 1980s that the development of the web – the main application of the internet network allowing people to browse from page to page – began to attract commercial interest. At that time, « the net was a great utopia for the pioneer users, » the historian continues. There was the hope of an emancipatory world, free and free of borders. An ideal soon forgotten. « In the mid-1990s, the first cases of censorship on the web and the responsibility of internet service providers broke out, » Valérie Schafe recalls.

The great leap of the internet came in the 2000s. Wikipedia was created in 2001, Facebook in 2004, Twitter in 2006. The emergence of social networks saw the birth of a new form of participation and the general public took to the internet. This is a long process that is gradually changing our relationship to privacy. The researcher Serge Tisseron speaks of « extimacy » when referring to this intimacy that is shown and staged on the networks. According to Valérie Schafer, it is absurd today to dissociate our real and digital identities. « There is a form of naturalization of our online life, which becomes an extension of our physical life. This is something we have difficulty in realising.

Consenting captives

The economic system is also at the heart of this societal upheaval. The GAFAMs are profiling the marketing of their users thanks to the data they collect on them, in order to distribute targeted advertising. According to Valérie Schafer, this model of the data economy is of considerable importance in changing our relationship to privacy; « By being tracked and commoditised by the web giants, this revealed intimacy becomes a real economic product ». For example, in 2017, 86% of Google’s revenue came from its advertising business. Added to this are the monopolistic situations of these giants and the multiple encroachments on the prerogatives of States.

This raises the question of our free will, as Sylvain Steer explains. « Do we accept that these foreign firms have so much power over our lives? That they have the ability to decide what content and opinions are valid or not? To dictate how we consume? For Valérie Schafer, it is above all a question of conscience. « We must make the effort to try to understand the technical functioning of these networks in order to be able to make sovereign decisions. However, she concedes, « we must be lucid and admit that the Internet user does not always have a choice. They are captives of a system that is sometimes very opaque. Indeed, it is very complicated to know exactly what data is captured by GAFAMs. Most of the time, their services are not open source, i.e. they are not accessible, or only partially.

Collective responsibility

The role of politicians is also questioned. « Acting at the individual level is good. But it is at the collective level that things must change », says Sylvain Steer, who is also co-author of the Guide de survie des aventuriers d’internet, written with the CECIL (Centre d’études sur la citoyenneté, l’informatisation et les libertés). In 2016, the European Union adopted the RGPD (General Data Protection Regulation). This text stipulates, among other things, that the only possible method for collecting data for advertising purposes is consent, validly obtained. A good measure according to the lawyer, even if it suffers from application problems.

But political action comes up against several obstacles, says the member of the Quadrature du net. « Many of these actors have become auxiliaries to the public service, with the goodwill of the States. These actors, who have become unavoidable, maintain a complex power relationship with the authorities, particularly by lobbying the European Commission very aggressively.

The question of digital sovereignty then arose, imagining a French or European Google, over which the State would have more control. This was the ambition of the French search engine Qwant. A real failure, says Grégoire Pouget, member of Nothing 2 hide, an association that trains journalists in digital security. « The Qwant project absorbed public money and ended up using the services of Bing, the Microsoft search engine. He believes that there are simple things that could be done to compete with the American giants. « The services offered by Framasoft are free software that could very well be promoted by public authorities.

The most important thing is to encourage the general public to act and change their browsing habits, according to Sylvain Steer. However, he regrets, « despite the many scandals that have tainted Facebook’s reputation, few people would be prepared to leave the social network. It has become too much of a commitment in their social life. In a situation where the Internet user is both responsible and powerless, the question of education seems indispensable. The national education system is doing its bit, » says Valérie Schafer, « and awareness is growing, thanks in particular to associations such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Framasoft in France. The challenge of education is all the more important, explains the historian, as « the new generations, although very comfortable with digital tools, have very little knowledge and critical perspective on the functioning of these networks and the societal implications ».