Horyou team was recently invited to watch Freenet, a documentary about the lack of Internet access in many parts of the world and its consequences for democracy, competitiveness and social rights. After the screening, the opinions within the team on the issue of free Internet were so divided that they could not be decided between, which caused us to collectively interview the director of Freenet, Pedro Ekman, whose answers, candid as they were, are challenging meat for thought!

Freenet exhibition in São Paulo, Brazil
Freenet exhibition in São Paulo, Brazil

1. Why did you decide to make a movie about free Internet?

The film is a project of four civil society organizations – Intervozes, Idec, IRS-Rio and Instituto Nupef – working on the defence of civil rights on the Internet. These organizations saw the necessity of producing relevant content that aims to explain to a non expert audience the main recent issues that are under discussion regarding the threats to free Internet and to human rights.

2. The documentary is about how the access to Internet can address inequality and bring competitiveness to people, communities and regions. What has prevented universal access to internet so far?

The market. The commercial interests of corporations that control the access infrastructure is incompatible with the public interest in the universalization of a key service regardless of economic condition. In the places where it came to be considered an essential service to exercise citizenship under secured access, the Internet ceased to be a luxury item to become a social development tool.

3. By controlling Internet access, do governments and corporations control our minds?

By massively monitoring the society and having the possibility to analyze the behavior of people on the network, governments have the ability to draw a true map of our minds. This creates a very bad precedent for the democratic process as we know it, as it may punish dissidents and anticipate political movements. The storage and analysis of all searches that we do on the Internet reveal thoughts that we dare to share with someone else. If governments can analyze that, they may know how we usually think.

4. Does access to the Internet free people?

The Internet can provide access to culture, information and social rights that have been historically denied to populations around the world. It can transform an audience of spectators and consumers into a group that produces and disseminates content. The Internet can make people feel as part of something and not mere spectators by connecting them with others; it can give visibility to groups that were always invisible to the eyes of an extremely concentrated and partial society.

One of the scenes: at the amazon river to show small ISPs connecting isolated communities
One of the scenes: at the amazon river to show small ISPs connecting isolated communities

5. The subject of the democratisation of the Internet is a very interesting but also controversial issue. Have you considered the dark side of the Internet while researching for the movie? What have you found? 

Yes, the same tool capable of amplifying the freedom of expression is also able to put the whole society on oppressive surveillance. The Internet will not necessarily create a more democratic society; we run the risk of having just the opposite. The promise that we can all freely communicate has become a great illusion, either controlled by algorithms that select who gets more visibility and who stays in the shade, or surveillance systems to shy away freedom of expression and advance towards a control society.

6. What is your opinion about the argument that the propagation of the Internet might be the new colonization?

The Internet is a tool that is being fought over by various sectors of society and reflects the correlation of forces in it. No doubt the technological frontier has been increasingly key to the advancement of world powers. The United States and China compete for every centimeter of router market, because they want the information to flow within a technology that they can control. To build technological systems that no one is able to control and that gives maximum transparency to the functioning of the state with total privacy for citizens is the great challenge we are facing today. It is a long and complex battle.

7. A few disturbing scenes in the documentary show slums in Brazil that lack access to some basic needs but have a very informal Internet service. Why should the Internet be a priority for people who live in remote areas where the basic living necessities are still problematic?

Scene of the film showing difference of internet speed between two neighbourhoods
Scene of the film showing difference of internet speed between two neighbourhoods

The idea that the Internet is something that should come after the basic rights is natural only for the middle class and the rich, because they already have met their basic rights and understand the Internet as something nonessential, used to entertainment or to facilitate the work. The poorer populations quickly realized that the Internet is not a luxury item that should come after sanitation. The Internet is a gateway to other rights, a tool that can generate organization and mobilization for the conquest of rights and therefore the poorer populations do not stay idly waiting for their rights be met in a priority queue; it will get the tools they need to transform their reality.

8. Recently, India refused Zuckerberg’s offer of a free Internet infrastructure for fear of a hidden scam. Do you think there is a big corporation movement which supports free Internet in order to get more users/consumers/data?

The Facebook group is not really concerned with providing access to an unlimited network with its huge variety of applications; they are interested in reaching consumers they failed to reach by providing them preferably exclusively with their applications. This serves the interests of corporate shareholders but creates fences and walls around them. We cannot let one or a few corporations decide about what we can or cannot access; we can’t create an unlimited Internet for the elite and a curtailed Internet for the poor. The Internet has to be a great free and unlimited network.

9. Can the Internet really ‘connect’ people around the world? If you go through its content there are often more negative than positive communication. Will it therefore be beneficial to expose to people who live in a relatively closed and traditional environment to such a connection?

I think the Internet can create connections that were impossible before, give visibility to things that were not visible before and amplify voices that could not be heard. And this movement is for good and for evil. The same way the global community can come together to help refugees or victims of natural disasters, so could hatred find an impulse. The Internet can help educate, but it will never replace an in-person educational process; likewise, social networking friends are not as interesting as friends who meet each other. The important thing is to understand that the Internet will not create or finish problems by itself, it is a tool that amplifies and accelerates a range of social relations which build the society we have and will have. The rules governing the way we connect are critical to our future social design. These rules are in contention at the moment all around the world. We must decide what we want to do with this tool and in which society we want to be.

Freenet was launched last month in Brazil and is distributed through a collaborative model. For a free access to the documentary, contact the producers.

Questions by Cintia Pino, Emmanuel Doffou, Joanna Kozik, Vivian Soares and Yue Wang.

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