By Nicolas Rasiulis (McGill University)
It was the night of April 4, 2021. Or was it early on April 5? One thing is certain: my attention was drawn to Mongolia, to my doctoral fieldwork there (delayed because of the pandemic), and to questions of if and when I might return among Dukha people there. I surfed the World Wide Web (WWW), riding a gizmo-board enabled by common and precious metals—as if any weren’t precious (!)—mined from who-knows-where and powered by electricity harnessed presumably from dammed Canadian rivers and subsequently channelled along sprawling powerlines, and flowing along surfs breaking under the weight of Google-waves in Internet-waters in the winds of artificial intelligence systems I barely know of, let alone grasp. Simply put, I Googled stuff on my laptop and plunged into rabbit holes headed by my search results, themselves results of an intersection of the keywords I used and a unique directionality moulded by algorithmic reads on my behaviours, interests, etc. I focused my inquiry on the state of Mongolian border closures and mobility restrictions within the country, and towards where currents might lead in any one of multiple possible not-too-distant futures.
Desperate for any trace of evidence that might help me read a log-jammed present and hazy horizons, I tripped on an Expedia webpage advertising a tour of Mongolia. How strange and ironic that, had I wanted to, I could have booked (and paid for) a tour beginning that very day, despite the virtual impossibility of such a trip at that time! What was at first frivolous soon became eerie when I realised that, while Dukhas and countless other Mongolians entangled in the tourism industry were unable to garner income from the latter, Expedia could profit at the expense of some naïve consumer duped into signing up for a non-existent tour. “Of course,” I thought, “Expedia might reimburse that ‘poor’ duped consumer once they realised that their dream trip to the ‘land of eternal blue sky’ wasn’t possible.” However, in the intervening period Expedia (and, perhaps, their partners, investors, etc.) would have some extra liquidity. Eureka! At a time when tourism is effectively non-existent in Mongolia (due to restrictions, not even domestic tourists could travel inter-regionally at that time), some actors beyond Mongolia can profit from the mere idea of tourism in Mongolia.
I then came to a deeper, more chilling realization: actors such as Expedia or Google don’t need a duped consumer to make a purchase in order to profit from their activity; such actors and myriad others with whom they entangle profit from attention. Because of the ways in which most corporate websites are structured financially and evaluated metrically, simply by visiting a webpage one very well might contribute to the capital gains of entities at the forefront and in the shadows of those websites. Uh oh… The calls are coming from inside the house! At that very moment, with that webpage open, and, worse, with my cursor hovering within that webpage’s bounds—and, possibly, with my webcam registering my eyeballs’ movements as I scan the page—I was playing into an insidious financial, surveillance, and information-, identity- and behaviour-harvesting scheme1. I don’t oppose Expedia, or the rights of actors to profit. But I would rather not contribute to just anyone’s profits simply by perusing their freely accessible website for information, without even making a purchase. Close the window. But the issue is not resolved. It runs deep.
The deeper issue escapes the bounds of my personal behavioural habits online when at leisure. The depths of this issue are salient for just about any online research(er). These depths were relevant before the pandemic and will outlast it, but are especially salient now. When researching, we spend a lot of time mining webpages for information. Oftentimes we might scour webpages of entities that we wouldn’t wish to support, or that we actively critique in our research analyses. Not much comes without cost, whatever we might be led to believe (or however much we might intentionally overlook or unintentionally forget). In a way, the more critical our research is, the greater its cost. This is because the more we revile an object of online inquiry, the more we have to sacrifice our morals in order to directly interface with it, and the bigger the crisis we are striving to mitigate, the more undesirable our online impact. For example, my online interfacing with corporate sponsors of nature conservation endeavours that impinge on Dukhas’ livelihoods bears collateral consequences that are more counter-productive to my efforts at supporting Dukha efforts to resist such impingement than my online interfacing with the Dukha community organisation was (that organisation’s website is now defunct). In trying to fight the power, I empower it. The WWW is sticky, and our wake in its tangles is consequential. And these entanglements last, leaving the possibility of future consequences we yet only imagine.
Parsing through these tangles reveals bleak anfractuosity. I do not see any clear way out of this bind, perhaps with the exception of hacking webpages. However, there might be less recondite and more legal (though limited) ways for mitigating our online footprint when researching. By paying attention to what sort of cookies and permissions we grant by browsing web pages, we can either configure settings to minimize our concessions, or, if possible, avoid such concessions altogether. Additionally, by copying and/or screenshotting content housed within a webpage and pasting that into a personal document we can hold on to that content for further consultation without further visitation to, or idling on, that webpage.
I am aware of two potential avenues for avoiding such websites altogether. One is the Internet Archive Wayback Machine, a non-profit archive of webpage crawls “granted for scholarship and research purposes.” (Internet Archive 2014). Though incomplete and heavy to operate, this tool affords access to many webpages’ contents along lines that might not directly empower actors invested in those pages or in the economic system and strategies these pages bolster2.
The other avenue is public company registries. Though these provide some interesting specifics regarding company registration, filings, etc., they provide little information (no mission statement, list of partners, etc.), and they do not allow for a grasp of that company’s public self-presentation. Furthermore, there is no comprehensive, user-friendly registry for all corporations in the world, and many actors are not neatly bound within one discrete corporation. These registries are typically limited to individual countries or provinces/states. Moreover, many registries are closed access publications. Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada offers an open access registry but, in my experience, not all relevant corporations can be found there. But Expedia Canada Corp can. As of June 1, 2021, their last annual meeting occurred on June 30, 2019, and, for some undisclosed reason, their 2021 annual filings are “not due.”3 But our hypothetical consumer’s credit payment would be due. And, as researchers, our due diligence is compelled.
Whether we are scouring websites for information, using academic networking and dissemination platforms (i.e. Academia.edu, ResearchGate), emailing, or using search engines4, our activity bears consequences beyond that which we might intend. It is important for us to realize that we can be as naïve as laypeople when it comes to the effects of our virtual presence and actions. In some ways the terrain lulls into ignorance, just as it excites us with information. I for one am a layperson when it comes to the World Wide Web. But in order to conduct responsible online research, we must first become aware of our unintentional complicity in structures of power that harness our online selves, and then sharpen our abilities to circumvent these structures as much as we can. This is not easy to do, nor is it possible to do all the time. But it might be worth trying, and trying might help us learn more about the very actors and processes we study, and about the environment in which they continually emerge, shift and entangle. It is my hope that, to some extent, we can awaken to the consequentiality of the wake of our online behaviour.
- It is common for online service providers to harvest users’ data for purposes other than quality assurance. Harvested data are used to provide metrics that bolster providers’ market value (Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited 2020), to inform targeted advertising (Doffman 2021), and, in some instances, to influence thought or behaviour, such as in the now infamous case of Facebook’s dealings with Cambridge Analytica in the lead up to the 2016 USA presidential election (Kozlowska 2018). Evidence suggests that these same mechanisms are utilised by state intelligence agencies for the purposes of surveillance (Lyon ND) and, allegedly, of character assassination, and behaviour, thought and identity modification (Greenwald 2014). Finally, less questionable evidence suggests that police forces, including the RCMP, have utilized facial recognition software (e.g. Clearview AI) that extracts data from social media and other websites (Tunney 2021).
- Additionally, this tool can be used to track changes made on webpages. A notably example of this concerns the definition of “herd immunity” as expressed in a WHO FAQ webpage. Whereas in June, 2020, the definition included “immunity developed through previous infection” (Internet Archive 2021a), in November, 2020, natural immunity was omitted from the definition (Internet Archive 2021b), and in December, 2020, the definition was once again changed, this time to re-include natural immunity as a factor, while stressing that “Herd immunity against COVID-19 should be achieved by protecting people through vaccination, not by exposing them to the pathogen that causes the disease” (Internet Archive 2021c).
- As of August 2, 2021, Expedia Canada Corp’s 2021 annual filings are “due.”
- Although some search engines, such as DuckDuckGo and, perhaps my favourite, Brave Search, promote themselves as platforms that respect user privacy more than Google and Bing, trusting these claims entirely requires a leap of faith I am not completely ready to take regarding my own activities, much less regarding what I might suggest for people other than myself.
Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited. 2020. “Data Valuation: Understanding the value of your data assets.” General information communication. Accessed online October 30, 2021. https://www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/global/Documents/Finance/Valuation-Data-Digital.pdf.
Doffman, Zak. 2021. “Why You Shouldn’t Use Google Chrome After New Privacy Disclosure.” Forbes, March 20. Accessed online October 30, 2021. https://www.forbes.com/sites/zakdoffman/2021/03/20/stop-using-google-chrome-on-apple-iphone-12-pro-max-ipad-and-macbook-pro/?sh=3043cc034d08.
Greenwald, Glenn. 2014. “How Cover Agents Infiltrate the Internet to Manipulate, Deceive, and Destroy Reputations.” The Intercept. February 24. Accessed online July 8, 2021. https://theintercept.com/2014/02/24/jtrig-manipulation/.
——-2021a. “Coronavirus disease (COVID-19): Serology, antibodies and immunity.” June 9, 2020. Accessed online July 26, 2021. https://web.archive.org/web/20201023093420/https://www.who.int/news-room/q-a-detail/coronavirus-disease-covid-19-serology.
——-2021b. “Coronavirus disease (COVID-19): Serology, antibodies and immunity.” November 13, 2020. Accessed online July 26, 2021. https://web.archive.org/web/20201124094747/https://www.who.int/news-room/q-a-detail/coronavirus-disease-covid-19-serology.
——-2021c. “Coronavirus disease (COVID-19): Serology, antibodies and immunity.” December 31, 2020. Accessed online August 25, 2021. https://web.archive.org/web/20210819171957/https://www.who.int/news-room/q-a-detail/coronavirus-disease-covid-19-serology.
Kozlowska, Iga. 2018. “Facebook and Data Privacy in the Age of Cambridge Analytica.” The Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies, University of Washington. April 30. Accessed online October 30, 2021. https://jsis.washington.edu/news/facebook-data-privacy-age-cambridge-analytica/.
Lyon, David. ND. “State and Surveillance.” Centre for International Governance Innovation. Accessed online October 30, 2021. https://www.cigionline.org/articles/state-and-surveillance/.
Tunney, Catharine. 2021. “RCMP’s use of facial recognition tech violated privacy laws, investigation finds.” CBC News. June 10. Accessed online October 30, 2021. https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/rcmp-clearview-ai-1.6060228.