I don’t know about you, but I am angry. I am angry with the state of the world and our incapacity to do something about it. I am angrier because, in all this, I thought that the Internet would be the place where we would see collective action at its best. But, that’s not going to happen. At least, any time soon.
Is it time to admit that the Internet has turned toxic?
No. But, it is time to ask ourselves the question: is the Internet today the one we subscribed to originally? (This place of openness, freedom, innovation and creativity – a value proposition of democracy)
When I heard earlier this month that, during the US Presidential elections, as many as 126 million people were lied to, misinformed and subjected to propaganda, I got angry. Is this the Internet I want to be part of? Of course not! And, I am pretty sure it’s not the Internet that these 126 million people want to be part of. But, I also realized that we are equally responsible for the current state of how we understand the Internet.
Let’s start with the fact that we chose convenience over human values. Over the past years, our ability to debate and, even hold an opinion, seems to be getting out of our hands. And, it is getting progressively worse. Social media platforms and Internet intermediaries make decisions daily on our behalf on what we should agree or disagree with. The proliferation of propaganda has chipped away our right to question the facts. Companies, with focus unrelated to content infrastructure, remove controversial domain name sites and they prevent us from engaging in an intellectual argument about extremism. In a glimpse of a second, private companies can silence the conversation. And, we accept this.
There is nothing new or shocking about this. According to Jürgen Habermas, the role social media platforms can play in democracies can be less than conspicuous. Notwithstanding their ability to destabilize authoritarian regimes, they can also wear away the public sphere of democracies. And, there are examples of social media platforms undemocratically silencing different conversations.
Although the idea of private companies determining issues like speech had always many concerned, the user sentiment was that they represented basic democratic values. It was, after all, Facebook that was celebrated for its contribution during the Arab Spring; it was Twitter that stood up to Turkey’s pressures on censorship a few years ago; and, it was Google that ceased censoring its Chinese search engine, costing its exile from China.
All these acts were applauded for how these private actors represented the liberal ideals of democracy; how they advocated for everyone to express themselves and be part of this global conversation. It was fascinating. And, for many years, our faith on them seemed to be having great results. We felt safe that these companies were protecting and were standing up for our beliefs. We idolized them and, because of that, we also became complacent and we stopped paying attention.
It is not that big Internet companies lied to us or suddenly stopped supporting liberal ideals. In the end, profit took precedent. Speech got into the second priority lane. Information became diluted.
In such cases normally, the government would intervene to ensure that fundamental rights are appropriately and freely applied. But, just like us, governments are also guilty of becoming complacent. For many different issues and for years, governments have been outsourcing a lot of the decisions to the private sector. And, that is not good enough. That is fundamentally not good enough.
So, for many years, private Internet companies were loose. They grew both in size and in the services they offered to users. And, as they did that, they became more powerful and more untouchable.
But, then something changed. A lot of things changed actually. The world was exposed to a seismic geopolitical shift, where old power structures either collapsed or got refocused. The news cycle was too fast to shift from Brexit, to the US Presidential elections, the rise of far-right groups across the world, international security and secessionist trends. In all these trends, the Internet was front and center. It may not have caused any of them but it had become the place where each and every one of them would get exaggerated. Suddenly, our heroes were the villains.
Are then governments the good guys now?
Yes and no. We should all be very concerned with what has happened last year in the United States. Governments should also be very concerned and they seem willing to tackle this. But, so far, they appear to go for patches instead of a real fix. And, they go alone. Germany recently passed legislation that demands the removal of hate speech within 24 hours. France, Italy and Germany are eager to have social media platforms remove objectionable content within 2 hours of it appearing. And, in the US, questions over whether social media ads should be regulated like TV commercials have started emerging. In the meantime, private Internet companies are looking for ways to respond to this regulatory pressure either by hiring an increased amount of staff to monitor violent content or by collaborating to find ways to fight extremism.
Neither of these approaches can work. Government regulation will not fix the problem – it will exacerbate it. Regulation will stop innovation and will create an environment where private Internet companies will over-censor in their attempt to avoid hefty fines or bad reputation. On the other hand, continuing to allow social media platforms to create their own rules uninhibited only gives them more power to ‘behave’ as independent state-actors.
What’s the way forward? Transparency is our only currency. We should go back to the whole idea of figuring out how to hold private Internet companies accountable. Governments should join in this effort not through regulation but through a more loose normative structure.
In the wake of the financial crisis, governments started demanding greater corporate accountability. This led to the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), a global standard for good governance of oil, gas and mineral sources, run by a multistakeholder Board of governments, extractive companies, civil society, financial institutions and international organizations.
Are we experiencing a democracy crisis analogous to the financial one? Most probably not yet. But, we are headed there the Internet is accelerating this process. Our only currency is transparency.