The comedian Steven Wright once called the internet the “Wild West” of the civilised world: a place where you can find millions upon millions of funny, informative, cringey, disgusting and awe-inspiring things that you would never find anywhere else.
The internet has evolved from the 'Market Highway', conceived in the late 90s, into a colossal entity for socialising, entertainment, and for supplying the tools for anything you could desire. The rules that regulate other forms of media have no say in this anarchic mecca of information. Ideas, commentaries, videos and memes flow freely between users.
Unfortunately, that world may be starting to change. The landscape of the internet has always been defined by the users that produce its content; now governments have taken notice and want to define and shape that landscape themselves.
Calls from both the government and the private sector to regulate sections of the inter-net are getting louder.
Between Article 13 still careering like a runaway train, calls from MPs to regulate social media, and Facebook being grilled in the US congress, this could be the time that our internet begins to change for the worse.
One of the internet’s defining features has been the simple freedom to access and express whatever you want within the guidelines of the websites you use. If governments were to further interfere in the blocking of offensive content and arrest its creators (something they have already started doing) the risk of tyrannical control of speech would increase.
It is not a coincidence that £200 000 has already been spent on an “online hate crime hub” in the UK alone. Some of those taken into custody were blatant criminals and terrorists that nobody in their right mind would support. But others such as Count Dankula, and the man involved in the Twitter joke trial, show that injustice is still a possibility.
Creators on YouTube know that no software exists that can sift through content effectively and distinguish genuinely disgraceful content from content in-line with community guidelines.
If the government intervened, they would be faced with two choices. The options would be a blanket ban that runs the significant risk of catching legal content in the net, or a system where it is up to the judgement of a set of anonymous people who analyse each individual post or video.
As the latter is expensive and not feasible on the scale demanded, the blanket would start to fall, dealing a deadly blow to free speech and free expression. For real and fair regulation of the internet to be a reality, technology that doesn’t exist would have to be produced.
Analysis of videos and transcripts of posts, and the continuous observation of social media would not only be Orwellian in nature, but expensive and time consuming.
Better to invest in combatting crime in the physical world, instead of pursuing the arrest of someone whose twitter feed included ambiguous comments.
The large platforms of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and so on, have all been trying to clamp down on bullying and online harassment. I will be the first to admit that they have done abysmally.
However, I do find it mildly amusing that government bodies, with little to no knowledge of how the internet functions beyond Donald Trump’s Twitter, think they can do a better job than the professionals.
Perhaps it would be best to work with those who manage these platforms on developing better systems of detecting hate, instead of pulling them in for questioning . Maybe even focus on teaching about the internet and online abuse in schools, instead of clumsily applying bans. Blanket bans are not the answer.
Prohibition and the ongoing war on marijuana are good examples of how banning things drives them underground into the hands of far more unscrupulous providers. I wouldn’t trust the government to run a newspaper, why should I trust them with my Facebook feed?