Fine Tuning the Internet?

New Zealand Herald Tech Blogger Juha Saarinen has written an interesting piece in the technology column of today’s Herald. He blames the Internet for 2016 and is gloomy about the future.

He focusses upon cybecrime, ransomware, malware and the hostile nature of the environment, conveniently forgetting that the kinetic world is a hostile place. Social media comes in for a hit, providing a platform for extremists as well as posing a threat to privacy.  Hatefulness is poison – no doubt – but I am always reminded when I hear calls to “shut them down” of the title of a book by Anthony Lewis – “Freedom for the Thought That We Hate”.

Freedom of speech is nothing if it is the freedom to say things with which we agree, and the echo chamber seems to be a phenomenon of the ghastly post-truth world. One’s commitment to freedom of speech is tested when one is confronted with something truly disagreeable but which, nevertheless, the speaker or writer is free to express. I have always subscribed to Thomas Jefferson’s marketplace of ideas theory. The good ideas will receive traction. That bad ones will fall away. Idealistic? Yes, but rather better than muzzling.

Juha closes by suggesting that the Internet is sliding towards bad things and needs fine tuning to fit people better, arguing that next year wouldn’t be too soon to start on that process.

This sounds like a call for some sort of Internet regulation. Juha properly recognises that the Internet in fact is just the communications backbone. In that respect it is content neutral. It is merely a means of transporting data. It is what is “bolted on” to the backbone that is where the interest lies.

Permissionless innovation has always been a positive characteristic of the development of Internet platforms. Perhaps it is this aspect that needs regulation. Perhaps Tim Berners-Lee should have had to go through a bureaucratic process before letting the Web protocol loose on the Internet. Similarly Google – a group perhaps of code and consequence vetters should ensure that the platform is fit for purpose and “safe” to use – oh and by the way, if you want to make any changes to the code you will need to have out approval.

Permissionless innovation and the lack of red tape accompanying bolting a platform on to the backbone has been one of the strengths of the Internet.

A few years ago I used a phrase – unadvisedly in the particular context – which I will repeat here. We have met the enemy and he is us. The Internet is not the problem. We are. And if that were not enough, factor in a level of disinhibition that seems to accompany on-line behaviour like trolling and it becomes clear that the problem is people – or rather some people.

We have laws in place already that deal with online behaviour. The controversial Harmful Digital Communications Act 2015 – an example of Internet exceptionalism – regulates behaviour online. The computer crimes sections of the Crimes Act 1961 – getting a bit creaky now after 13 years – deal with online fraud, hacking and systems compromises. Spam is covered by the Unsolicited Electronic Messages Act 2007. Unauthorised file sharing is dealt with under the Copyright Act 1994. Child porn falls within the Films Videos and Publications Classification Act 1993. These examples visit consequences upon users who breach the legislative provisions. The laws are there. I seriously doubt that the Internet itself needs further regulation if indeed you can do that to such a diverse and distributed network

In the same way that people take steps to protect their property by putting security systems in place to stop burglars or fraudsters or other villains with vile intent facilities are available to ensure that the work or home systems are as secure as they can be.

But there is one thing you can do if the Internet gets to be too much and that is pull the plug. That is rather harder to do in the kinetic space. The real world which is REALLY scary is a lot harder to switch off.