The impact of the World Wide Web did not hit us suddenly like the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989. There is no 9 November to celebrate the technological revolution. Rather it has crept up on us like the slow and steady devastation of coastal erosion, each new wave of useful and entertaining tech chipping away at the walls of our consciousness until one day we woke up to discover that our mental geography had been fundamentally altered.
For me, the revelation came while scrolling mindlessly through Facebook on a dark winter night in January 2017. In among the Christmas holiday photos from beaches, mountains and brightly lit cityscapes around the world, I came across an article that made me sit up and think. It was a now infamous story about data, Brexit, Trump and Cambridge Analytica originally published in German by Swiss investigative journalists on a small online news website.1
This article lit a light, a blue light that wouldn’t let me sleep. I read and reread. I stepped away from the screen. I remembered the night of the Brexit referendum in June 2016, checking my Facebook account and going to bed early, sure that in the end, the European project that had been built with such hope on the ruins left by the Second World War would win the day. Facebook told me what I wanted to hear – after 20 years of work on human rights in Europe, everyone I knew on Twitter and Facebook agreed with me and I slept soundly. But somehow, in the morning, it was clear that the country did not agree with my Facebook feed. Could it be that my complacency had been curated? Had I been lulled into a false sense of security so that I would not see the need to speak up?
Whether this was the case or not, the idea that this could be true – that my smartphone could be used as a portal to manipulate my mind – felt like a personal assault. That this could have been done en masse to manipulate the results of elections that could change our very futures was an existential threat to the democratic society I grew up in, and one that, at the time, worryingly few people were talking about.
Behavioural microtargeting is a technological tool to get inside our minds and rearrange the furniture. The idea that this could be happening, minute by minute, to affect the way we think, feel and behave is unthinkable. But what is even more worrying is that these techniques are not limited to the political sphere. This kind of profiling and targeting is worth billions, because profiling and targeting our minds to influence our thoughts sells things. What’s for sale can be banal, like a choice of underwear; or profound, like a belief in the power of national sovereignty. In addition, these algorithmic processes are used to filter us out for opportunities for work, finance and love. And we feed them every time we do anything online. What shook me about the story was how easily our thoughts and opinions can be hacked on such a massive scale, and that little or nothing was being done to stop it.
The rights to freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief and freedom of opinion are absolute rights protected in international law. Without freedom of thought or opinion, we have no humanity, and we have no democracy. Making these rights real requires three things:
- the ability to keep your thoughts private;
- freedom from manipulation of your thoughts;
- that no one can be penalised for their thoughts alone.3
The right to freedom of thought is a cornerstone of all our other rights. And its profound importance for humanity means it is protected in the strongest possible way in human rights law. Yet somehow we have allowed ourselves to be lulled into the false assumption that we don’t need to worry about it because no one can actually get inside our heads. The Cambridge Analytica scandal is just one piece of evidence that this assumption is no longer true, if it ever was. The scale and range of interferences with our ability to think and feel freely that technology can and might facilitate is in many ways beyond our imagination. But it is happening now. We have forgotten that rights need protections to be real and effective.
While the idea of privacy feels closed, introspective and exclusive, designed to constrain and obscure the self, keeping others out, the idea of freedom of thought is expansive, exploratory and open. It is the space to discover new ideas, try on new viewpoints, be scurrilous, irreverent and naughty, profound and pompous, in order to understand our place in the world around us. Freedom of thought is a voyage of discovery and privacy is the tollbooth.
Tim Berners-Lee did not invent the World Wide Web to enslave our minds. But over the past three decades, a Panglossian optimism combined with cynical self-interest has allowed the scale of our dependence and the reach of technology into our minds to expand unchecked. Big tech has dodged regulation by scaring policymakers with the threat that regulation would stifle innovation – no one wants to be branded a Luddite. Now that we have begun to wake up to the reality, we are told that it is a done deal, something so complex and all-pervasive that we must just learn to live with it. But we do not have to learn to live with a system that denies our dignity. We must remember the revolutionary spirit of Paris and Berlin that characterised  the year the internet was born. And we need to learn how to change the internet into a system that contributes to our individual and collective liberty.
At the start of 1989, the Berlin Wall seemed like a solid and immutable fact of life – the embodiment of a world split by ideology for decades. And then Berliners started to pick up hammers to chip away at the concrete facade, and by Christmas it was history.
In 2020, the global pandemic that ended so many lives and locked us up in our houses made the use of the word ‘unprecedented’ banal. But it did provide an unprecedented opportunity for reflection. Now that we understand what it means to lose our physical liberty and to live our lives online, we need to focus on what freedom, including mental freedom, should mean for our future in the digital age.