Digital empowerment, cell phones for all, the road to democracy via social media, technological agents of change, a free Internet, virtual inclusion as opposed to reality exclusion, and a whole list of digital freedoms that seemed to offer the solution to poverty, oppression and dictatorship — all these things are no longer trending today.
Two decades ago, the inhabitants of the planet were made to believe that the road to development, democracy, freedom, poverty eradication and education ran through technology, and more precisely through the digitalisation of societies.
But the world today has changed, and what was once regarded as an agent of change, a tool of democracy, and the key to inclusion is now being revisited.
There is no longer a call for a virtual world of undefined accessibility, uncontrolled connectivity, or absolute freedom.
However, there have been moves towards the greater protection of data from online surveillance, the securing of democracies against the influences of social media, the tracking of digital pick-pockets, cyber-security, and global stability, all in a bid to maintain humanity in an age of artificial intelligence.
In other words, the message today is no longer one of “technology and innovation” but more one of “technology, innovation and society”, the title of a gathering organised by the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi in partnership with the Tangier-Tetouan-Al-Hoceima regional council and the Moroccan Ministry of Industry, Investment, Trade and the Digital Economy that took place in Tangiers in mid-May under the auspices of king Mohamed VI of Morocco.
Experts from all over the world convened to discuss the opportunities, as well as the threats, of technology, innovation and inclusion, with a special eye on Africa and the Arab world.
For nearly a decade, the relationship between individuals and technology companies was quite simple: data was exchanged in return for services that were often free.
Digital ecosystems thrived on the free flow of data, and millions of people started thinking that this was the norm and that being online was somehow nearly equivalent to being in paradise.
However, aided by new and intrusive technologies, this business model has been posing societal, political and security risks over the past two years in the West and over the past seven years in the Arab region.
Perhaps one should be thankful to Russian operations in the US and the Cambridge Analytica revelations in the UK about the misuse of data, since otherwise digital risks could have continued to pose threats in the Arab world.
However, when the world realised that data had been used to manipulate the public sphere in adverse ways in the Western democracies, people woke up to what had been going on for years in other parts of the world and during the 2011 Arab Spring.
Sessions at the Morocco meeting tackled issues such as how personal data remains online, how social media has been capable of influencing electoral outcomes, the rapid increases in cyber-attacks and how efficient tools of cyber-security are, and how to counter violent extremism online.
As the Arab world is sometimes seen as being at the centre of terrorism in the world today, it was interesting to see how tackling online terrorism, or even the online encouragement and recruiting of future terrorists, clashed with digital freedoms and the notion of democratisation via the Internet.
The prominent role played by technology in the rise of radicalism in Africa and Asia, and of course in the Arab world, is no longer a point of argument, but has rather become a topic attracting a certain degree of unanimity.
Encryption-enabled mobile phones have made it easier for terrorists to avoid detection while they coordinate their activities, and social media can serve as a fertile breeding ground for extremists.
Information technology coordinator at the UN Counter-Terrorism Executive Directorate (CTED) Marc Poret said at the meeting that technology had been a facilitator rather than a driver of extremism. It was for this reason that there had been calls to outlaw extremist ideologies on the Internet.
Professor of political risk at New York University Maha Aziz suggested using former extremists who had defected from their groups to help spot sleeper cells online, in addition to understanding the reasons why people are recruited in the first place. In other words, more should be done to understand what makes extremism attractive.
Political advisor to the UN Mohamed Fayoumi said that tools remained tools, and in this sense the tool of technology to disseminate ideologies was one and the same, whether it be for Islamist extremists, progressive liberals, or right-wing groups.
He also added that states continued to be the major supporters and financers of extremist groups, and the Islamic State (IS) group had even possessed land, a political and economic system, and a currency. “These things belong to states,” he argued. The solution, as Fayoumi perceived it, was a strong state.
However, tackling extremism on the Internet and controlling the activities of those who are recruited and those who recruit poses the question of human rights and whether such controls constitute an intrusion or violation of such rights.
Human rights in the digital age have become a major issue, and there are risks of cyber-attacks, digital divides, and hate speech on the Internet. Can security concerns be tackled without endangering digital freedoms?
Head of cyber-policy at the German foreign office Karsten Geier said at the meeting that there were no differences between online and offline freedoms.
Even though spreading fake news online has never been easier, not a single country has managed to find a real solution to it, she said, especially since some cyber-attacks are launched via states.
Over the years, the variety and intensity of cyber-attacks have multiplied exponentially, even as many states have been struggling to arrive at framework for cyber-security.
While information technology can help build open and equitable societies, governments are increasingly worried that they are becoming insecure because of the destabilising effect of the Internet.
It has been apparent that Internet services have been among the top casualties in places where political unrest breaks out. But spreading lies, destabilising states and inducing change for the worse have also been problems associated with the Internet.
A major question looms: who is Big Brother today? Is he associated most with states, intelligence apparatuses, foreign entities, groups with ideologies, or merely individuals having fun? Who should he be protecting? Who is violating the rules? What if the one who protects also violates? Should the idea of a department for the defence of democracy in a major IT company be taken seriously, or should it be seen as simply a façade for something else? What if part of the digital revolution, together with online freedoms and digital rights, is only a façade for neo-colonialism?
If some countries agree on the necessity for some sort of monitoring and controlling of the hate and extremism taking place online, would the majority be able to reach an agreement on what is offensive and what is not? Who should be the ombudsman of the online world? Could there be guarantees that cyber-security would not be used as an excuse for political repression?
There were many differences at the conference on fully understanding and being able to deal with cyber-threats without violating digital freedoms.
Some experts said that the most important tool for controlling dangers was censorship applied by the users themselves. Others claimed that the word “censorship” did not apply in this context.
What is sure is that when it comes to digital security, the world is still in a transitional phase. It is trying to find solutions. There are many challenges, but there are also many opportunities.
While user-generated content is posed as a solution to state oppression, fake news, and the manipulation of information, can also be a problem. User-generated content is also a dark side of the story.
Leaving cyber-threats and opportunities to one side, even as we speak someone somewhere is getting ready for artificial intelligence to take the lead worldwide and with it people’s jobs and critical abilities.
The writer is a journalist at Al-Hayat newspaper.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 31 May 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly with headline: Cyber-security in an age of insecurity