Whatever happened to our dream of an empowering Internet (and how to get it back)

I remember when I first logged on to the Internet like it was yesterday.

I had been hearing rumours about this global communications network, and had met people who told me about electronic messaging systems that would send mail to people in universities around the world. It sounded like science fiction to me, a child of the analogue world. I had been having my first encounters with global communications through bulletin board system (BBS), a dial up computer network where you would be able to download programs, files, send messages, and chat to  other users within the same system. But the actual Internet, having access to computers around the world, was an entirely different thing altogether. I remember using my humble 1200 b/s modem to dial up to the Internet for the first time and connecting using Lynx, the text-mode browser. Once connected I had no idea what to do, so I visited the World Wide Web Virtual Library and browsed some early sites and trying to find legal documents. Even if the number of sites was limited, it did not feel that way, it felt like something big was happening, like the world had become smaller somehow.

I have been in love with the Internet ever since.

The dream

The Internet seemed like such an incredible space that it prompted many people, myself included, to start dreaming about its potential as a truly transformative technology, a force for good that would create a more educated populace that would be able to communicate with people around the world. By erasing borders, the Internet would bring transparency, end inequality, and help to reduce poverty by empowering people through its potential to educate and communicate.

Nothing spells this dream more than the words of the Declaration of Independence of Cyberspece, in which John Perry Barlow tells us:

“Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.
We have no elected government, nor are we likely to have one, so I address you with no greater authority than that with which liberty itself always speaks. I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us. You have no moral right to rule us nor do you possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear.”

This type of dream later became known as cyber-utopianism, the idea that the Internet is unique in its own right, a technology so fundamentally different that it could be construed as being its own country, where normal legal rules and regulations have no bearing. The national state does not have any jurisdiction over it, as it does not understand this new place.

But I would class as 2010 as the year in which we reached peak cyber-utopianism. The Arab Spring happened, and a lot of people at the time were claiming that it had been powered by social media. Wikileaks released the shocking Collateral Murder video, prompting dreams of a more transparent future in which governments would think twice before committing atrocities because those actions would be leaked. And Bitcoin had started making a few waves in technical circles, heralding a future in which financial markets would be distributed and more egalitarian, where everyone with spare computing power could issue currencies.

While many of these ideas have been under serious attack, as we will see, it is important to reinstate one of the reasons why the dream of the empowering Internet was so prevalent at some point. Change was coming fast in almost all walks of life, from shopping to travel, and it felt like society was indeed changing. Particularly before the dot.com bubble burst, the idea of the transformative power of the global network was persuasive. And we only have to see how we lead our lives today to recognise that the Internet has indeed changed our lives.

What many did not foresee was that the change could also be for the worse.

Shattering the dream

There was so much to love about this new world of seemingly unlimited possibilities: music, discussion, knowledge, all awaiting at the click of a button. But early on I was confronted with the darker side of the Internet after joining my first online discussion forum. While I had a great time in some of these communities, I was quickly confronted with various types of abusers, such as online trolls. I became a moderator of one particularly contentious community, and was resented with persistent trolls that loved nothing more than trying to upset people by spouting opinions that they did not share. Managing such trolls became an time-consuming job, and while the community was policed by volunteers, it soon became clear that the Internet was encouraging some of the darkest features of the human psyche to develop.

Anonymity seemed to empower the wrong type of person, those who had a lot of hatred but nowhere to channel it. But perhaps more worrying, the Internet allowed those personalities to congregate and start feeding on each other’s paranoias and conspiracy theories. The dream of a Web in which information and education would win over ignorance became the opposite, a nightmare scenario of radicalisation, disinformation, conspiracy, racism, and jingoism. All of this was fuelled by a toxic combination of feedback loops and filter bubbles, which allowed people to read only opinions that confirmed their biases.

It turns out that when you give the world the tools to communicate with one another, they will still congregate in communities of like-minded individuals, and they will reinforce each other’s biases. While we dreamt of a transparent, educated and empowered utopia, the Web gave us communities that never communicated with one another, and misinformation and falsehood were free to fester online. Anti-vax, Truthers, Climate Change Denialists, Flat Earthers, and Fundamentalists of every stripe found fertile grounds to grow.

Rebuilding the dream

The first trick to rebuilding the dream is to realise that the Internet of cyber-utopianism is a fantasy that can never be achieved. We should temper our expectations about what technology can do with realistic expectations. Technology cannot save the world, only people can. The Internet will not end poverty, end capitalism, save the environment, or make us happier. The type of thinking that expects the latest technology to save us only leads to disillusionment when it obviously fails to do just that.

Managing expectations is an important part of the equation, but it is also vital to stress that the dream should stay alive. The Internet CAN be a force for good, it can help people communicate, it can bring people together, it can spread information, it can educate, and it can serve to provide a more transparent future. But to do all of those things, we have to manage all of the negative things that come with it. All of the surveillance, abuse, radicalisation and violence has to be managed somehow. But how?

There have been various solutions offered over the years of how to do that.

Law: We could try to use legislation to fix some problems, this could take the shape of revamping defamation laws, enhancing privacy protection, and criminalising excessive abuse. The problem with legal solutions is that more often than not regulators, policymakers do not understand the technology, and invariably legislators get the Internet wrong. A lot of nuance is lost in moral panics, and legislation often over-reaches in trying to solve a problem. Legal solutions often require a delicate balance of rights: free speech versus privacy; property rights versus access to information; transparency versus security. This act requires informed decision-makers and an informed public, and both can often be sorely lacking.

Self-regulation: Another solution is to rely on self-regulation by the industry, letting the platforms use moderation and self-policing to remove abusive behaviours. While more action from the tech industry to curb some practices such as abuse is needed (and this already takes place), this could create problems as well. One of the biggest issues is the lack of transparency on how decisions are made by private enterprises. American-centric solutions for a global network may miss the point, and end up filtering and moderating based on specific US cultural responses.

Artificial intelligence: Should we bring in the robots then? There have been calls to leave some moderation tasks in the hands of machine learning. This could be a potentially good solution to try to quickly remove some undesired content from the Web. This solution has some similar problems to what has been discussed above. Lack of transparency on how algorithms operate is a real issue, as well as the problem that artificial intelligence tends to share the biases of the humans it learns from.

Real names: For quite a while, there has been a tendency to assume that most online abuse would end overnight if we only got rid of anonymity and implemented real name policies. However, anyone who has visited a Facebook or YouTube comments section will know that people are happy to put their names to some pretty outrageous messages. Moreover, there is evidence that real names policies could have the opposite effect and foster abuse.

Perhaps the solution is a combination of all of the above. But one thing at least is clear, we should try to make a personal effort to bring civility back into the public sphere. Be positive, share good content, do not engage in needless flame wars, be nice to others online. For too long have we allowed negativity to fester online. If we want a better Internet, the dream begins with your own screen.

Note: This is a modified version of the presentation given this year at re:publica 17 (slides here).

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