Global internet is dead, thanks to for-profit algorithms

In the 1980s, when the global internet emerged, it was a network of decentralised computers in different universities across countries. By the 1990s, with Tim Berner Lee’s World Wide Web, any node across this network, could access any information. As storage capacity and data access speeds increased, this was quickly taken over mostly US-based companies, offering free products to users.

When social networks first began more than 20 years ago, there was a sense of freedom. Everyone with global internet access and who could communicate in global Internet languages, anywhere in the world, could get online and share their stories on Facebook and Twitter, interact and voice their lived experiences. The Arab Spring protests in the 2010s was celebrated as the high point of this new online, seamless freedom.

(First published as a column in Mint Lounge, a business daily in India.)

Global Internet companies quickly advocated this idea of a global, frameless, free online space which had no visa requirement or restrictions, a truly democratic space to operate in. The idea that a company created to maximise profit for its shareholders can make a democratic system for interaction is in itself perhaps ludicrous. However, the soma of this dream was drunk by not only users but also by Silicon Valley investors and founders, who insisted they could change the world without ever leaving their little white echo chambers.

(Read part one of this column here.)

Continue reading “Global internet is dead, thanks to for-profit algorithms”

Is Internet freedom dead?

I’ve been fascinated by the idea of Internet. For many it represents freedom, democracy and equality. However, the way internet is going now, it seems that it’s simply mirroring the realities of our real lives. It is building similar power structures and has enhanced human insecurities and the difference between have-its and have-nots. Pokemon was one example. The poor cousins in India never got to play it. Gender inequality and bullying is beautifully rampant in the annals of comments on every blog.

Which is why when I came across this article by Jennifer Granick, the director of Civil Liberties at the Center for Internet and Society, I was nodding my head at most of the things. Here’s what she says about the internet:

Twenty years from now,

• You won’t necessarily know anything about the decisions that affect your rights, like whether you get a loan, a job, or if a car runs over you. Things will get decided by data-crunching computer algorithms and no human will really be able to understand why.

• The Internet will become a lot more like TV and a lot less like the global conversation we envisioned 20 years ago.

• Rather than being overturned, existing power structures will be reinforced and replicated, and this will be particularly true for security.

•Internet technology design increasingly facilitates rather than defeats censorship and control.

It doesn’t have to be this way. But to change course, we need to ask some hard questions and make some difficult decisions.

Now this is a scary scenario and something that we might see coming after all as our dependence on algorithms and what we want increases. See the video of the speech below or reach the complete speech over at Backchannel.

How do you feel? Are you still positive about the change that Internet can bring in to our lives or do you think it simply reflects the issues already entrenched in our society?

Log off from the internet, step by step

A 101 on removing your personal data from the Internet. But be warned: it’s a painful exercise

How to be invisible online

In an age when we’re slowly losing our privacy, here’s what you can do to hide your tracks

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The days of privacy online are fast coming to an end. In April, the Union government quietly began rolling out the Central Monitoring System (CMS), a one-stop surveillance service that will monitor not only your cellphones (voice calls, SMS, MMS) but also your online activity (social networking sites, browsing content, and possibly more).

Much like the PRISM surveillance programme run by the US government (which collects the personal online information of its citizens without informing them), the CMS can bypass mobile companies and dig directly into phone calls, texts, emails and social media activity. PRISM was largely unknown to the public until a whistleblower disclosed the details recently after fleeing to Hong Kong.

“If the government wants to track certain people for the security of this country, that’s not the problem,” says Delhi-based Anja Kovacs, project director of the Internet Democracy Project, which researches on and advocates online freedom. “The problem is that there’s no clarity from the government on who can see what all of this private information about you. Who can access your information? Under what circumstances and why?”

By law, all cyber cafés in the country are already supposed to keep a log on who you are and which sites you visited while at the café. Even activity on private Internet connections is tracked by your Internet service provider (ISP), which is legally bound to share it with government agencies if requested.

“Ideally all of us should have a choice to be anonymous. What if I have some embarrassing sexually-transmitted disease on which I am talking to a doctor online? I am not doing anything illegal but it’s embarrassing for me if someone finds out about it,” says Kovacs. There are times when you don’t want anyone, be it your ISP, the government, the media, your neighbour, your spouse, or Trojan Horses to peep into what you are doing. For those times, here’s how you can become “almost” invisible online.

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Create a private network

Who doesn’t like the word free? It’s quite tempting to use free Wi-Fi on your smartphone while waiting for that flight or having a cup of coffee, but it’s far from safe. Data sent across a public Wi-Fi is usually completely unencrypted, so to spy on you, people only need to be on the same Wi-Fi network as you.

To avoid this and still use the free Wi-Fi, install Hamachi, which creates a Virtual Private Network (VPN) between two computers via the Internet. Once installed, you can connect to your always-on home computer through the public Wi-Fi and then visit any websites securely.

Hamachi is free and works for Windows, OS X and Linux.

Stash the cookies

Cookies are those tiny little logs that websites dump on your computer every time you visit them. With these on your computer, the websites can then track your activity on their pages and sometimes (as in the case of the Facebook “Like” button or the Twitter “Follow” button), even track your activity on other websites. These cookies can be blocked with a simple plug-in DoNotTrackMe.

DoNotTrackMe is free and can be used for Internet Explorer, Chrome, Safari and Firefox.

Clean it all

Begin with a clean chit by deleting all the temporary files, history and cookies indices your usual Internet browser might have stored about you. All in the name of better service or quicker loading. CCleaner is the ultimate broomstick that will wipe away all the flotsam from Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome, Opera, Safari and log files from both Windows and Mac PCs.

CCleaner is available for Rs.1,593.63.

Tidy up the torrents

Every time you’re using torrents to share files, the ISP can track your name, and also track where you’re downloading the files from. If you’re downloading anything personal in nature, then it’s best to add protection by using the BTGuard, which is a proxy server and encryption service.

The BTGuard uses a virtual fake address to funnel your Internet traffic through another server, so that it cannot be traced back to you.

BTGuard costs $6.95 (around Rs.415) a month or $59.95 for 12 months.

Keep the firewall up

You might be protected and anonymous to your Internet service provider (ISP) and hide your computer’s identity, but simple Trojan Horses can grab those documents from right under your nose and send them off to someone else. The solution is a Firewall, a necessary evil for today’s connected times. Either Avast or Clamav will protect your computer from trojans, viruses, malware and malicious threats.

Avast Antivirus works for Windows and Mac and Clamav works for Windows. Both are free.

Encrypt emails

When you send an email to someone, its plain text passes through servers across countries, making copies. Which means that anyone who can access any of those servers can read the message. Companies monitor the emails sent by employees and governments monitor the emails sent by citizens. The most problematic are phishing networks which might be able to abuse private message content sent in an email.

All this can be checked if the message is an encrypted one, not plain text. The easiest email client for this is Mozilla Thunderbird—an email client like Microsoft Outlook, but with better security. With an Enigmail extension, it lets you encrypt the email by clicking a little key icon on the lower right of the Compose windows.

Mozilla Thunderbird is free and works for Linux, Mac OS X and Windows.

Use a Web-based proxy

Just like your home, your computer has a unique address called its Internet Protocol or IP address. When you log in online or open a Web page, this address goes through your Internet service provider (ISP) to the website you are trying to log in to. Both the website and the ISP use that IP to track your activity. A Web-based proxy creates a virtual address for your computer so that your real IP address remains hidden when you are online. Proxify ( is a paid, one-click install system for Windows or Mac or Firefox browsers which encrypts all communication and hides your IP address. If you don’t mind advertisements, there are many online Web-proxies you can use to get a virtual IP address.

For a list of free online services head to Free Proxy ( But do remember that any proxy website you use may be able to see and store your user names, passwords, credit information, etc. Or, in some cases, even read your email. Because of this, a paid service is generally a safer option.

Proxify is available for Rs.2,400 for three months.


First published on Jun 25, 2013 Mint. Read the complete article here.

The circles of social networking

The virtual giant has done it yet again, with the Google+ Project. The latest rage, it is fun, easy to use and gives you a next-generation experience

Shweta Taneja


It is a little more than two weeks old, in beta stage, and already has two million users across the world. It has already crashed twice because too many people were logged in at the same time. Its regular invites are being sold on for 99 cents (Rs. 44). A week after it was launched, Google’s marketvalue shot up by $20 billion. If you haven’t heard or read about it, you might as well have been living under a rock. Welcome to the latest rage in social networking, the Google+ Project.

Till now, social networking attempts by Google at best got responses such as “ahem” or an indifferent “so what?”. Google Wave became nothing but a techie haunt, Google Buzz stopped buzzing within a few days of its launch, and Orkut failed to attract anyone but sleazy lurkers. All of them fell off the online radar, and weren’t missed much.

But Google+ has an altogether different approach to social networking. It is fun and it offers a little bit more than Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, MySpace, Orkut and all other social networks put together. According to Google, it aims to be a social layer on top of the search engine and all its product offerings, so that your Web experience becomes one seamless, integrated Web-social experience.

Circles and Hangouts

The social site revolves around Circles—which are specified groups of friends, family, acquaintances and the people you want to follow. You can create, edit and delete Circles with a simple drag-and-drop function. A tweet (@gstrompolos) describes the experience of putting the people you know in Circles as playing a never-ending game of solitaire with your contacts. Visually, that is what the drag-and- drop feels like.

Continue reading “The circles of social networking”

Take charge of Facebook

Want to take control of your data and the way you use your Facebook account? Then try these tricks. By Shweta Taneja


When Tejas Pande, a 23-year-old Bangalore-based information technology professional, heard about a workshop called Facebook Resistances at the Centre for Internet and Society ( in the city, he signed up without thinking twice. “I spend almost 10 hours every day logged in to my Facebook account. Its fixed rituals were getting to me. So I wanted to find out how I can take more control of my account and make it more personal.”

The workshop, which was conducted by Marc Stumpel, a new media researcher and privacy advocate from Amsterdam, the Netherlands, had the same concerns. Stumpel’s workshop, which has travelled across the world from Barcelona and Berlin to Bangalore, is a research initiative that looks at changing the rules and functionality of Facebook. “We want to change your experience of the site and make it more personal,” he says, adding, “We also want you to safeguard your privacy in the Facebook world.” All this, he says, is possible through add-ons to your Internet browser. “People just need to know what these cracks are.”

Privacy rules: There are simple ways to safeguard your privacy on Facebook.

Privacy rules: There are simple ways to safeguard your privacy on Facebook.

With more than 600 million active users, Facebook has become prone to attacks from hackers. Problems such as identity theft and malicious bot messages or status update worms are becoming common. Other than that, privacy concerns which have wracked Facebook since its inception continue to be controversial despite the “controls” it now offers.

The main reason for this is that the social networking mammoth keeps on pushing new features or changes constantly and rapidly, even before we can understand the ones that already exist. “Most often we don’t get a chance to opt in to new features, and can only opt out if they get our attention,”explains Stumpel. This leads to a loss of control over personal data and what Facebook can do with it.

To prevent this, it’s necessary to keep going back to those account settings and make full use of whatever control Facebook offers at any point. Here are some of the latest ways you can protect your online identity.

Log out of multiple sessions

How many times have you logged into Facebook from an Internet café or a friend’s mobile phone and forgotten to log out? Every time you do that, even though you close the browsing window or application at the end, Facebook keeps your session open, making you vulnerable to mischief. Now you can log into your account and see a list of active sessions with their details, which include the login time, device name, the approximate location of the login based on IP address, and browser and operating system. If some of them are unauthorized or you are unaware of these activities, shut them immediately and reset your password.

Take control now: In your Facebook account, go to Account > Account Settings > Account Security > Account Activity > Also Active. Facebook lists all your active, open browsers in the Also Active list. Click on End Activity on the unwanted ones. You can also take control of which gadgets you log on from with the Login Approvals feature that comes under Account Security. This feature lets you put a code alert, which can then be SMSed to your mobile phone as soon as you log in from an unrecognized computer. This will alert you in case there’s been a login from a source you don’t know about.

Avoid the unwanted photo tag

Did a friend just put your drunk as hell photograph, wearing a “I hate my boss” T-shirt and making an obscene gesture, online? And did your boss and wife see it and blast you for irresponsibility? Other than the embarrassment, you may get into trouble at home or at work because of friends tagging inane photographs they clicked somewhere you don’t remember.If it’s not photographs, it’s minor irritants such as social or festive messages that you unexpectedly get tagged in. Avoid such irritants with a simple click.

Take control now: Go to Account > Privacy Settings > Sharing on Facebook. Click on ‘Customize settings’. In the page that pops up, choose in each option who can see and comment on things you share, things on your Wall and things you’re tagged in.

Secure your account

Hacking is increasingly a problem on Facebook. The reason is that on most of the networks, Facebook (unlike email clients) works on an unsecured connection (http) and not a secure one (https). Now the social networking site gives you an option to choose a secure site for logging and browsing. You can also choose one-time passwords when logging into Facebook from a public connection.

Take control now: Go to Account > Account Settings> Account Security > Secure Browsing. Tick on Browse Facebook on a Secure Connection (https) whenever possible. In case you are using a public computer, take the option of Facebook One-time Passwords. Text “OTP” to 32665 on your mobile phone and you will get a new one-time password which expires within 20 minutes.

Stop Facebook from haunting you online

Baffled when your Facebook profile image pops up every time you are reading a news site or a travel website online asking you to “Like” a news or review since another friend from Facebook does? Or surprised when you are browsing a travel website and your friends’ photographs pop up suddenly, saying they have been there and “Recommend” a hotel or site? Facebook has partnered with some websites to, as it delicately puts it, “provide you with great, personalized experiences the moment you arrive, such as immediately playing the music you like or displaying friends’ reviews”. Basically if you are logged in to Facebook, these sites can take information from your account and display it and also tell you which of your friends have visited that particular city earlier. If you wish to stop Facebook from haunting you everywhere you go online on your browser, act now.

Take control now: To block a third party, go to Account > Privacy Settings > Apps and Websites> Instant Personalization. Deselect Enable Instant Personalization to stop getting these subtle suggestions from Facebook.

Cut off the ads

A Facebook friend, Mr-I-Like-Everything, “Likes” yet another page and it pops up as a suggestion on the right side of your profile. If you have been on Facebook long enough, chances are one of the “Sponsored” pages has been shoved under your nose at least once. These little ad blurbs which keep popping up on the right-hand side corner, or underneath your apps on the left side of your page, are a mix of advertisements as well as Facebook’s way of further profiling you. Facebook calls them “Suggestions” that add to your social personality, but they are just ads.

Read the complete article here.