By now, are all exposed to the narrative of how the Internet is no longer a safe place. It is full of bots, misinformation, abuse and violence; it is a space that has been overtaken by terrorists and extremists. The Internet is weaponized to influence elections, undermine democracies and instill fear in its users. That’s the story we are told.
No one can deny the swift change that is taking place in global politics. The “brave new world’ that has emerged is, currently, based on isolation and fear. We have officially entered the politics of fear.
How true is this though? How real is fear in the Internet?
Arguably, fear is as old as life. It is deeply part of all living organisms that have survived extinction through billions of years of evolution. Its roots go deep in our biological and psychological existence, and it is one of the most intimate feelings we get to experience. Demagogues have always used fear as a means to intimidate their subordinates or enemies, while shepherding the tribe by the leaders. Fear is a very strong tool that can blur humans’ logic and change their behavior.
Fear has become part of the Internet experience. Every week there is another data breach, another privacy violation, child abusive content proliferates, questionable forums like 8chan are inreasing and people are constantly bullied for expressing – or not expressing – their opinions. The Internet is a dark place. That’s the only story we get to hear. That’s the story world leaders – democratic and not – tell to justify their attempts to control the Internet and turn it into a centralized and restricted space. This is the global trend. But, is it?
The past ten days I have been fortunate to spend some time in New Zealand. What a pleasant surprise it has been. I left the European way of Interneting, a way that is based on distrust, individualism and fear, only to be exposed to the Kiwi way, which is based on trust, collaboration and hope. I, myself, had lost hope that such a way still exists.
March 15, 2019 is the date New Zealanders - and the rest of the world - will never forget. A gunman, carrying two semi-automatic weapons, two shotguns and a lever-action firearm opened fire indiscriminately at two mosques in Christchurch during Friday prayer. The first attack was livestreamed on Facebook. It was viewed 200 times during its live broadcast and 4000 times in total before it was removed. According to Facebook, the company was notified about the livestream 12 minutes after the video had ended. Over the 24 hours following the attack, individuals attempted to re-upload the video 1.5 million times.
New Zealand had a choice to make: succumb to fear or hang on to hope. And, it chose the latter. Post-Christchurch, the government of New Zealand did not order a shutdown of Internet or its services; it did not rush through legislation that sought to regulate the way companies and users interact in the Internet. Its government did not engage in fear mongering. Instead, led by its Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand turned to the international community asking for collaboration to address what she considered to be a global issue -- how to deal with extremist and violent content online (what would become the “Christchurch call”). In praising this collaborative approach during my panel intervention at NetHui, New Zealand’s version of an Internet governance dialogue, I was told: “this is the Kiwi way of doing things”. Well, the Kiwi way, is also the Internet way. Bringing people together, to collaborate to solve “wicked problems” and address complex questions has been the “Internet way” all along. Without necessarily realizing it, New Zealand was upholding one of the Internet’s most fundamental properties.
During her speech at NetHui, the Prime Minister recognized the challenges the Internet is facing and the slow progress post-Christchurch. Yet again, this did not make her move into panic mode. Instead, she reaffirmed and recommitted to an open, secure and free Internet. She mentioned that she still believes in the ability of the Internet to bring positive change; to be the space of expression and creativity; to be the engine of unstoppable innovation. She said she wanted to do the right thing.
Let's not miss the significance of this. Without intending, New Zealand has become the example of how we must all approach the challenges we face in the Internet; it has become the Internet's champion. Sure, there are still things that the Kiwis need to learn about the Internet and understand better the way it works. Sure the “Christchurch call” process has its own deficiencies and issues. But, ultimately, it is all about New Zealand’s willingness not to close, shut down, centralize or try to control the Internet that they must be commended.
The ‘kiwi way’ of Interneting must not go unnoticed. It must become a lesson for the rest of the world leaders.
Views are my own and my own only!