Can We Kill Off This Myth That The Internet Is A Wild West That Needs To Be Tamed?
from the it's-not dept
We recently wrote about Nicolas Sarkozy’s push to convince the tech world and the “digerati” that it’s time to clamp down on internet freedoms. While he was more blatant and direct about it, we’re seeing a similar theme elsewhere, and frequently see such claims in our comments as well. It’s all based on this idea that the internet is some sort of “wild west” that is a haven for all sorts of illegality, and that needs to come to an end.
The problem is that this is a myth. It makes for a compelling narrative, but it’s a myth nonetheless.
The latest version of this, is a horrible, dangerous and ridiculous editorial from Martin Kettle, at The Guardian, who insists that it’s time to bring the internet “under control.”
Yet whatever one’s qualms about Sarkozy and his plan, he is surely on to something that should not be so sweepingly dismissed. Looking at British politics this week, it is hard to make an intellectually serious case that internet regulation issues should not be raised. Not only has the balance between parliament, the courts and the media been made to look irrelevant over superinjunctions by the twitterati, but almost the first act of the new Scottish government on Thursday was to promise a clampdown on internet sectarian hate postings. The fact that Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg also popped up this week with the casual suggestion that children under 13 should be able to use social networking sites dramatically underlines the argument that there are issues of importance to discuss here.
Let’s take these things one by one. First, on the issue of the superinjunction, it suggests the exact opposite of what Kettle is arguing. It’s pointing out the ridiculousness of analog-era regulations in a digital age. That’s not a case for controls. It’s a case for removing controls. The issue of hate speech is another one where people overreact emotionally. The best way to counter hate speech (which is almost always ignorance) is with more speech. “Clamping down” only convinces those who hate that they’re “onto something” and that they’re being persecuted. Finally, Zuckerberg’s claim — which he’s already pointed out involved taking his words out of context — was just that there could be socially useful reasons why younger people might be helped if they could have accounts, but over aggressive internet controls prevent that. Again, that seems to argue against control, not for it.
The internet cannot exist in some undiscussable and untouchable dimension of human activity. It is a human creation. It affects human lives in all sorts of increasing ways. Morality and the rule of law should apply on the internet as elsewhere in human conduct. As such, it is an absolutely proper subject for governments to consider, though naturally with sensitivity.
And here’s the myth at work. The internet does not exist as untouchable. Morality and the rule of law do apply to the actions people do there. The question is whether those laws are appropriate. In many cases, it appears they’re not.
We have got to get past the fallacy that rules that existed in the pre-internet era are obsolete because the internet makes it so difficult to enforce them. To obey the injunctions of the courts over privacy, for example, is in principle right, not wrong. The fact that the internet makes it possible to circumvent those injunctions does not negate their worth or seriousness. It merely makes it imperative to consider the ways in which such constraints can be fairly enforced in the new media. That may not be as difficult as it may seem.
No, the fallacy is not that these laws are obsolete because they’re difficult to enforce. It’s that they’re obsolete because many of them don’t make any sense, such as these injunctions that seek to merely protect the rich and famous from having their own embarrassing actions discussed. Furthermore, some of these laws aren’t “difficult” to enforce, they’re impossible to enforce. And it’s not because the internet is some “wild west,” but because it’s a very different platform of communication — a many to many platform, which the world has not had before. We’ve had one-to-one and one-to-many forms of communication, but a many-to-many platform really does change some important fundamentals when it comes to speech.
Far more important are the questions of internet access to unsuitable material, especially but not solely by children, as well as the danger to children from inadequately policed social media. Merely to write such a sentence is to invite outrage in some quarters, but these issues are all too easy for a society to ignore until they return to haunt us.
And the proper response, if there is “unsuitable” (unsuitable to whom, by the way?) content is to go after those who produced and distributed it. Not to seek to block access and sweep it under the rug. That’s denial. Let’s live in reality.
It is beyond serious dispute that the internet has placed much greater amounts of pornography within far easier reach of many more people, including children, than at any other time in human history. And it is inconceivable that this is a development without destructive consequences.
“Destructive”? That certainly seems like hyperbole. Do you have any evidence to support destructive? I agree it may be inappropriate, but there are ways to deal with this that don’t involve regulations. It’s called educating children as to what’s appropriate, and how to deal with content that is inappropriate should they come across it.
To argue for controls over the internet may not be cool. But the internet was surely not meant to be this way. The geniuses who created the modern web and made it so exciting did not do so in order to create the largest pornography bombardment in human history, to have a global email system weighed down by spam, to encourage hostile hacking into national security secrets, to embolden sectarian bigots to violent threats or mere gossipers to say ill-considered things under the protection of pseudonymity.
No, they meant to create a platform for communication in a many-to-many fashion and they knew that, as with any platform for communication, it can be used for both good and bad purposes. The response shouldn’t be to automatically reach for the regulation button, with all its unintended consequences and heavy handed results, but to understand what it means to live in a world of much freer communication.
The problems can be solved by staying out the way. Kettle talks about spam and pornography. Yet, I almost never see spam any more. Why? Because technologists came in and built filters. I never see pornography either. And not because of any laws or filters, but because the websites I surf don’t display any, and contrary to the myth makers, it’s pretty difficult to “accidentally” run into porn. I do a lot of surfing and can’t recall ever accidentally coming across any.
The internet isn’t some wild west that needs taming. It’s a new and different system that is sometimes used for bad purposes, but much more frequently used for very, very good purposes. And, because so many people have natural incentives to minimize the bad, they tend to take care of themselves naturally, by those who actually understand the system, and not by those who seek to implement laws and controls that don’t fit the system.