A couple of years ago, the cyber-sphere seemed to be split into two sides: one for internet regulation, and one for absolute freedom of its users. But in recent times, the threat of terrorism, abuse, exploitation and treason have made internet regulation a lot more appealing for nations that once stood by the values of freedom of expression.
The United Kingdom for one are gearing up to launch their “explicit content ban” laws, requiring adult websites to verify the age of a user with ID. China are capitalizing on their mass surveillance infrastructure and tools and have found customers in powerful nations like the United Arab Emirates and Germany. They also offer “public opinion guidance,” which others would consider propaganda and censorship.
Even in the U.S., public opinion has fluctuated more than you might think. Polls have indicated a majority in favor of tighter government control especially during the threat of terror. A Pew Research Centre survey in December 2015 showed 56 percent of Americans were more concerned that the government’s anti-terror policies have not gone far enough to protect citizens. It proves one thing: The debate is more contested than you might think.
While we may value the possible security that regulation could provide, it’s also crucial to know what we could potentially give up. This is a glance at the reasons against the regulation of the internet.
What does a world of internet regulation look like
A look at the east might give us a clearer picture at what internet regulation looks like. For one, the internet becomes more of an intranet – a privatised and restricted network that is often designed for a company, or your school. In this case, it is a country.
Many internet services we take for granted today would be government-controlled. The government would keep talks on our activities on Facebook and Instagram, flagging suspicious activities or analyzing trends that could upset political agendas.
Unsurprisingly, our private conversations on services like Messenger and Whatsapp would be monitored too, using word detection technology today. This technology has been controversially employed in some companies like the government-sponsored mortgage corporation Freddie Mac, and in authoritarian systems like China, where citizens have been detained for using blacklisted words.
Having said that, one reason against the regulation in the west is the sheer difficulty of bringing internet users on to the authoritarian intranet. China’s advantage is that their platforms like WeChat – China’s all-in-one rendition of Facebook, Whatsapp and Instagram – was already government-controlled to begin with. With its restrictive internet policies, there wasn’t much choice for users to choose other platforms (legally, that is).
But for the rest of the world, it’s hard to imagine Facebook or Google ever giving up full control to the government. And even in that scenario, we would still have the freedom to leaving and switching on to other platforms and means of connecting with others.
A worrying culture from the top-down
The government stalking its netizens on a macro-level is one thing, but corporations doing the same may just make it way too close for comfort.
Often, practices of the authorities are spilled over to corporations as well, who may see it as a stamp of approval to conduct their own surveillance. And this could be deeply intrusive. Products like Microsoft’s Workplace Analytics let employers check how long their workers spend on e-mail, meeting time and time spent workings after hours.
This is just the tip of the iceberg; ideas that companies have patented present a 1984-like future of corporations. Amazon patented a bracelet that detects a worker’s location and interaction with their products. While they said they had no plans to implement this technology, it could one day become a reality should such intrusive surveillance become a norm.
For many, this would seem like a gross violation of personal space. Sometimes, we just need that therapeutic scroll through Instagram to give us a productivity boost.
The barriers are hard to define
In a culture that values the freedom of expression, it would be difficult to set a standard. If A.I. is an authority’s tool of choice for governing the internet, giving it a set of activities to track would be massive hurdle for programmers to wrap their brains around. The line between art and exploitation is often blurred. We humans are struggling to discern between the two – we couldn’t possibly ask for more from a machine.
We could err on the side of caution, but on a practical level, it would represent a bigger dilemma for individuals using the internet for research. Researchers looking up topics on terrorism, or controversial topics and its associated “flagged” terms could be flagged and restricted by A.I. – or a stalking government official. These are all hypothetical narratives, but it presents the tricky terrain.
When it comes to rules, laws can only be set in place when justified punishments are determined. It’s going to be a can of worms debating how to punish internet crimes, not to mention highly controversial and problematic. On another extreme, it could harm convicts with one-size-fits-all punishments that are only re-evaluated after years of debate.
Finally, and most unsurprisingly, a regulated internet follows the agenda of its authority – it promotes its ideas.
Control over the internet gives those in power control over the kinds of messages that spread, meaning ideas against authorities could easily be diverted. While arguable not without its merits, it’s a form of control that much of the world has broken away from. Regulating the internet could set us right back.
Where do you stand on this issue? Please share your views on the comment section below.