Hyderabad:14 April 2019: Every great advance in communication provokes an overreaction. No sooner had Johannes Gutenberg developed the art of mass printing in the 15th Century than there was widespread alarm at the sort of books and ideas that resulted from his invention.
'Something' had to be done – and that something usually resulted in a form of censorship or regulation from above.
The same thing is happening today. We are barely a dozen years into the explosion of social media – with all that is glorious, liberating, creative, messy, menacing and hateful about it – and there are demands to clip its wings. Or even kill it off.Those of us who work in universities are nervous of the language of 'safe spaces', knowing that – out there in the big bad world – there are no such thing as 'safe spaces' and that we do no favours to our students to prepare them for an environment which doesn't exist.
How does the Government propose that the UK's online space becomes the safest in the world? By introducing rules against 'unacceptable' content.
Like 'safe spaces', the word 'unacceptable' should ring alarm bells. Unacceptable to whom?In future, internet users will not be allowed to 'undermine our democratic values and principles'. Offenders will be punished with huge fines and by naming and shaming the senior management of offending companies.
But 'bad stuff' encompasses a huge range of material from things that are already illegal (terrorism, hate speech, child pornography etc) to more nebulous concepts. These include 'echo chambers' and 'filter bubbles', for example – which mean individual web users meet only a narrow range of views – and online harms 'which undermine our shared rights, responsibilities and opportunities to foster integration'. That's a very broad gamut of potentially controversial content and gives rise to the Who question. Who decides whether material is likely to be considered harmful, and who gets to regulate the supposedly safest place in the world?Where? Well, the regulator will be based on these shores. But it has not escaped the attention of the White Paper authors that many of the largest and most successful social media companies are headquartered on the other side of the planet.
The same month a woman received a month's ban from Facebook for posting two pictures: one showed the 1970s Iranian women's national volleyball team, wearing T-shirts and shorts; the current Iranian team was shown wearing hijabs and clothes that covered arms and legs.Both posts might cause a degree of offence, but does a 'safe' online space rule out any humour?
In any event, there are now several German sites which are only too willing to repost any material which alarms Facebook or Twitter.Then comes the Why? The instinct for such a crackdown on the internet is an understandable one. There is material in cyberspace – lots of it – which has no place in a decent society. It is entirely right to be looking for ways of protecting children and the vulnerable from things that could harm them. But unless it can answer the basic questions – not forgetting the How? – then the danger is that Britain will snuff out a precious flame.There are lots of reasons to dislike the West Coast giants. I wish they were more transparent; less driven by profit, more driven by public service.
The Google algorithm, for example, is one of the most powerful economic tools on the planet, yet how it works is a complete mystery to all its billions of users.I don't like them behaving like monopolies. I wish they would pay a fair share of tax on the enormous revenues they are scooping up. Some of them could undoubtedly afford to comply with the sort of stringent regime of regulation imagined in this report. But what about the smaller community websites? Or newspapers, struggling to deal with the dramatic loss of revenues as advertising is remorselessly sucked away by new players and new technologies?
What about the millions who have, in the past dozen or so years, found a voice and a freedom to communicate in this messy, brave and sometimes ugly new world?What kind of example would we be setting to countries where dissidents rely on the ability to post 'unacceptable' thoughts?
It's easy to demand instant answers to difficult problems. We won't solve the very real challenges of the internet by creating half-baked regulators on the back of a White Paper that asks many right questions, but comes up with an equal number of wrong answers.Five hundred years ago, Gutenberg's invention led to convulsive revolutions in religion, science, business, education and much more. One writer has claimed the German printer 'forged the key that would open the doors of knowledge to all mankind'.