Caught in the web

Elise Valmorbida writes about privacy and security, celebrity and surveillance

A man commits an appalling violent crime and seeks ad hoc publicity from passersby clicking on mobile phones. An elderly woman is mistreated by carers, but the horror is only revealed via CCTV installed for security. A public figure retaliates against the casual libel facilitated by Twitter – because tweets really aren’t the same as pub-talk with your mates. The US National Security Agency has direct access to the servers of Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, Paltalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube and Apple.

In 2003, I started writing a novel fuelled by issues of surveillance and celebrity. Two JFK lookalikes compete in a fatal re-enactment of the Dealey Plaza motorcade to win a reality TV show. The TV President was published in 2008. It was set in an alternative present, but the issues continue to rage in this non-alternative present.

On 10th June this year, Kings Place was full of folk like me wondering what it meant to be ‘caught in the web’. The evening’s debate, hosted by Index on Censorship, was subtitled: ‘How free are we online?’ The discussion was random and nomadic. Here are some of the thoughts I put together from the to and fro, and after.

What is the internet’s impact on our quality of life? UK digital champion Martha Lane Fox, with Price Waterhouse Coopers, conducted research into the positives and negatives. When you add it all up, the cost, the research, the abuse, the sharing, the porn, the education, the bullying, the activism, the stalking, the entertainment, the hacking, the news, the spam, the support, the invasion of privacy, the freedom of expression… the internet is a positive force. Economically and socially. The proof? More civic engagement, political engagement, free speech, educational attainment, social mobility…

Clicktivism. You don’t have to get cold and shouted at on a rainy day out marching. You can simply click from the comfort of your own armchair. This means that more people express their views more of the time, and huge rallies of opinion can be harnessed to effect change. But it also means that many people care a little bit about a lot of things. Our activism becomes diffuse, unsustained. We click, then we go on to something else. Real change, big change, happens when people are passionate, focused and determined.

Facebook owns a space inhabited and shared by 1 billion people, about a sixth of the world’s population. Who makes the laws? Facebook. When we sign up, we agree to their terms and conditions. But it’s a non-negotiated agreement which we don’t even read. We do this again and again in virtual space. If we were properly, actually, to read all those contracts, and evaluate their ‘Trojan’ possibilities, we would need 27 hours per day. It has been calculated. But we sign – in a click.

We are all publishers now. How democratic! But we over-share. We can’t retract or withdraw. It’s forever. It’s global. We’re not very skilled at making privacy trades. The time is too great between the signing of the contract now (tick this box if you agree) and the consequences months or years later (technological innovation does new and unimaginable things with your data, you’re fired because your employer has seen ‘you’ online, you’re banned because you expressed views which are no longer acceptable, your private life comes back to bite you publically on the bum, and so on).

This year is the 50th anniversary of the assassination of JFK. Here’s a date for your diary: 22nd November. Watch the conspiracy and celebrity industries crank up our desire to watch.

In 1999, the US Government paid $16million to the family of witness Abraham Zapruder for the original 8mm film he shot of President Kennedy being shot. The legal case for this record-breaking price rested on desire: the general market for rare emotive objects associated with celebrities and a yearning for a more innocent past – but above all, in this instance, a singular longing to unmake history.


Elise’s novel THE TV PRESIDENT, described as ‘luridly entertaining fiction’ by the Times Literary Supplement, is at CB Editions or at Amazon

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