Andres Guadamuz: Thank you very much. “Whatever Happened to Our Dream of an Empowering Internet (and How to Get It Back).” I am, as you have heard, a senior lecturer intellectual property. Last year I gave a talk on copyright and artificial intelligence. The video is somewhere. I’m using too much my hands, I realized at that some point.
So I always start with an apology. And the apology that I’m going to have today is that the second part of the title is a bit of a clickbait lie. I have no idea how to fix the Internet, obviously. But, I was inspired a lot by the theme of re:publica this year. So much so that I decided to jump into a topic that I absolutely… It’s outside of my comfort zone. It’s outside of copyright. It’s outside of Internet regulation. And I felt very strongly that there is something that has been lost with the Internet. That I wanted to explore this. So I’m going to go into topics that are… I’m going to be informed a lot in my expertise in Internet regulation in some ways. But I’m going to talk to you mostly as an Internet user, as an avid Internet user, as a blogger of many years, as one of you.
So it’s going to be divided in three parts. First the explanation of what is this dream, the dream of the empowering Internet. The first thing that I felt was that when I entered the Internet for the first time—and I won’t tell you exactly how long ago that was. But there is this dream that I used to have, and I can tell you very clearly that this was a very very powerful dream. The dream that the Internet can educate people, that can communicate people, that can empower people, can bring people together, can reduce inequality, reduce discrimination, decentralize, and of course be the source of an unlimited amount of cat pictures.
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.
John Perry Barlow, A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace [presentation slide]
Now this dream is a dream that I think is shared by many people online. Many of you will be familiar with this, which is perhaps one of the founding texts of what later became known as cyberutopianism, John Perry Barlow’s “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,” which tells us that the Internet is a special place. It’s a space that is going to be free of government action. Actually John Perry Barlow tells us very very strongly that governments should actually get out of the Internet. That they don’t have any power on the Internet. That they don’t have any control over what happens on the Internet. That they don’t understand the Internet. And it was a very powerful message that I think convinced quite a lot of people at the time.
Now, in Internet regulation circles this founding text has now mostly been used as a joke. Some people cite it as, “Oh, look how naïve people were back in 1996. They thought that the Internet was actually going to a new place, a powerful tool, a new space that was going to be free of governmental action.” Of course, I still have met lots of people that find this text as an inspiration. But I think that the idea that the Internet is itself an unregulated space has not aged quite well.
[2006 is] a story about community and collaboration on a scale never seen before. It’s about the cosmic compendium of knowledge Wikipedia and the million‐channel people’s network YouTube and the online metropolis MySpace. It’s about the many wresting power from the few and helping one another for nothing and how that will not only change the world, but also change the way the world changes.
Lev Grossman, You — Yes, You — Are TIME’s Person of the Year
Another text that I found quite interesting was that in 2006, Time magazine actually declared us the Person of the Year. Because of the rise of social media, because of the rise of interaction to a level that was never seen before, Lev Grossman, who some of you may know as the author of The Magicians, a series of books now is a series, highly recommended. He wrote this, actually. A quite interesting text on declaring us, the people of the Internet, the Person of the Year, saying pretty much that all of this, interaction was going to change the world as we know it.
This came to what is known as cyberutopianism. The Internet is unique. Technology can save the world. The Internet empowers people. And educated, informed, democratic, egalitarian, globalist societies will rise out of the Internet. So all of these ideas, what is considered to be cyberutopianism, were prevalent in many texts around that time.
Up to the point that about 2010, 2011 is what I would call peak cyberutopianism. I’m not going to tell you who wrote this, but it’s a text of someone proposing that Twitter should have been nominated to the Nobel Peace Prize. “Without Twitter, the people of Iran would not have felt empowered and confident to stand up for freedom and democracy.” Things like the Arab Spring in 2010. WikiLeaks, the Collateral Murder video was released around that same time. Bitcoin was created slightly earlier but it started becoming prevalent around 2011.
All of these gave people the idea that governments were on the retreat from the Internet. That transparency was on the rise. That whistleblowers were going to win the transparency wars. That governments had to be afraid of the Internet. And that the Internet was going to empower and make this dream that I was describing a possibility. A decentralized almost…where governments would be mostly administrators.
It is some time in the future. Technology has greatly increased people’s ability to “filter” what they want to read, see, and hear. General interest newspapers and magazines are largely a thing of the past. The same is true of broadcasters. The idea of choosing “channel 4” or instead “channel 7” seems positively quaint. With the aid of a television or computer screen, and the Internet, you are able to design your own newspapers and magazines. Having dispensed with broadcasters, you can choose your own video programming, with movies, game shows, sports, shopping, and news of your choice. You mix and match. You need not come across topics and views that you have not sought out.
Cass Sunstein, Republic.com [sample chapter]
Now, this of course was shattered at some point. I think that right after 2011 we start seeing several things that affect our dream. Now, back in 2007 before all of this, Cass Sunstein in a very interesting prescient book called Republic.com— Now there is a Republic.com 2.0 which has been updated. But even back then he was describing something that he called the “Daily Me” that is almost to a letter describing the filter bubbles that have become so prevalent in recent years. And he was describing this Internet where we could do whatever we wanted, but we also could filter out every type of information that we didn’t like. So we would only read and watch things that we liked and never have to come in contact with an opinion that we didn’t share.
Smart technologies are not just disruptive; they can also preserve the status quo. Revolutionary in theory, they are often reactionary in practice.
Evgeny Morozov, The Net Delusion (2011) [presentation slide]
In 2011, Evgeny Morozov wrote a very very interesting book called The Net Delusion. It’s probably the text that singlehandedly burst the cyberutopianism bubble. He comments in very very scathing criticism of the dark side of the Internet. The Internet can be a force for good, but also it can be misused by governments specifically to target people, to target activists. And this sparked off some of the things that we don’t like about the Internet.
Then there are what I call the Four Horsemen of the Infocalypse. The surveillance state that has been unearthed by the whistleblowers. Snowden, we owe him quite a lot. Of showing us the dark side, that the Internet is actually being used and misuse by governments to spy on all of us.
Privacy threats from private enterprises. That we’re being harvested. Our data is being harvested.
All the waves of abuse and hate. Abuse and hate have always existed but somehow the Internet tends to make it sometimes even worse.
And of course security breaches and all of the security attacks that we have a witnessed in recent years.
Other things that have shattered our dream of the Internet. Things like filter bubbles that were already as I was saying described before. The post‐factual society that has been enforced almost by the Internet. Because of the same filter bubbles sometimes, people that share a wrong idea sometimes get together and they reinforce each other. The rise of the anti‐vaccination… I don’t want to get into controversies like that, but the rise of the Flat Earth‐ism actually is… More people believe that the Earth is flat now because they get into groups and they start reinforcing those ideas.
Growing centralization. Actually the Internet is supposed to be decentralized, and we should never have seen things like the blackouts that we have seen the last few years because of our overreliance on cloud computing that is actually putting all of our eggs in one basket. And this is not supposed to happen. It was never supposed to happen. It’s reinforcing inequality in many instances. And just to mention one of my topics, copyright enforcement.
So this is the second part, the negative part. I’m going to try to revive the dream, okay. Some suggestions have been made, for example an attempt to use legislation and case law to fix some of the problems. All of the problems are extremely complex that I have told you there is no solution. So for example things like anti‐abuse legislation. Creating content filtering obligations. Web site blocking has been used considerably in copyright infringement, for example. Reinforce defamation law; make people who defame online more liable. Criminalize things like revenge porn. And the right to be forgotten, which is a right that we have in Europe.
However, legislative solutions— And I am a lawyer. I should have included that in my apology, actually. These legislative solutions often miss the mark. For example in January 2010, someone called Paul Chambers wrote to tweet saying, “Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together, otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!!”
He was prosecuted by the UK government for this because it was a threatening joke. It was considered a threat under the Communications Act 2003. He was convicted, and it took three appeals for this conviction to be quashed eventually. So often governments and legislation and courts miss the joke. This was obviously a joke. Everyone who read it thought it was a joke. But it took three appeals and millions of pounds to have this injustice reversed.
Things like regulatory efforts often miss the mark. Sometimes they want to pass legislation or a regulation that completely misses the point of what the Internet is actually doing or how the Internet works. They try to fix something and actually create something that is actually worse.
Also we have very complex interaction between rights. For example if we like something like the right to be forgotten (I personally think it’s a good thing), we have a very strong conflict between privacy, a person’s right to privacy, and freedom of speech. And we always have all of this very complex interaction of rights. So the law cannot solve everything.
Social corporate responsibility. Can we rely on the companies to save us? Can we rely on people like Facebook and Google and Twitter to actually try to fix all of the solutions? They can do it through moderation, content blocking, clear removal policies, and most importantly transparency.
However, often we have lack of transparency from the companies. There are conflicting commercial interests. Sometimes it’s in the best commercial interests of a company not to remove something or not to tackle a problem because it’s actually not in the best interests of their advertisers or whatever.
There’s also often a lack of consistency between platforms. One platform handles abuse in one way and another platform handles it in a different way. And there’s always the underlying Western bias. A lot of these companies operate in a very American‐centric environment and—I’m from Costa Rica—often miss many of us.
Another solution that has been provided by some people is to try to deanonymize the Internet. Because a lot of times anonymity is blamed as the cause of a lot of abuse, particularly. The idea is that normal people behave in one way, and if they are anonymous or you cannot know their identity they’re going to behave completely different. This is John Gabriel’s Greater Internet Bleep‐wad Theory. Normal person plus anonymity plus audience is a total…bleep-wad. Whatever.
However, there is no evidence whatsoever that these work. That the real name policies that are being pushed by some people actually work. Anonymity can be a good thing. In some circumstances, we may need some anonymity. Anonymity can be a right, can be an important tool if you’re a whistleblower or if you’re in a regime that actually criminalizes your very existence, for example.
Most importantly, there is now evidence (and I’m citing a paper here, very interesting) that tells us that sometimes real name policies and deanonymization can actually lead to an increase in discrimination and harassment.
So, should we bring in the robots? Use artificial intelligence and machine learning to try to solve the problems. This is actually increasingly quite a growing field. Twitch for example has now started using machine learning in their moderation of chat services. Google has just opened up their machine learning and artificial intelligence tools, just I think in February of this year for troll fighting and abuse fighting. The idea is that machines can help us.
However, of course, trying to use a machine to solve a complex issue, it won’t solve the problem. This is one my favorite XKCDs. It is very recent. That sometimes just adding artificial intelligence and a machine learning algorithm is not going to solve the problem. Often, actually, the algorithms are going to reflect the biases of the people that created them, of the people that operate them, and the people from whom they are learning. So that may not be a solution.
Now, maybe a combination of all the four solutions can help. And I think that in their own way perhaps we can start chipping away and recreating the dream. Now, I want to keep the dream alive. The First way in which we’ll have to recognize this is to say that the Internet is a force for good. To recognize that for all of the problems and all of that flaws that we have identified, that the Internet can bring us together, can help us communicate, and all of the things that I described as a dream that we used to have.
We have to recognize first that the Internet reflects society and the individuals in that society. So if we are abusive, if we are as a collective, as a society, showing discrimination and doing all sorts of things, the Internet is not going to solve this. The Internet is actually just going to reflect this. So we have to recognize this first.
Do not feed the trolls. Do manage expectations. The Internet is not going to help all of the problems that we have. The Internet is not going to end poverty. Blockchains are not going to end poverty. Technology is not going to help us. Technology might help us alleviate some problems, but the problems are there. So please, one of the things that we have to do is recognize the limits of technology, recognize the limits of the Internet, and not expect that they’re going to help us.
And most importantly please, the Internet is not Silicon Valley. We have to stop thinking that all of the solutions that work in San Francisco are going to work everywhere else.
So I wanted to finish with two things. First, to keep the dream alive I love the topic of this re:publica. I think this is a step in the right direction. Make things like love against hate. Yesterday Jérémie Zimmerman said use love against hate, against the machine. Make civility great again. Things like I love—there is a Wholesome Memes Twitter account that I highly recommend for people to look at. Make things nice, you know. Sometimes you have to fight but something just keep consuming wholesome memes and be courteous to each other online. Sometimes say nice things to someone on Twitter. It doesn’t hurt.
And also the second thing. I want to make snowflakes great again. For too long have we been falling for the insult that calling someone a snowflake is an insult. Particularly the alt‐right and some right wing groups have been using this to tarnish people. I actually think that snowflakes have a lot going for them. Lots of snow flakes together accountant can bring things to a standstill. Remember when we brought down something called SOPA and PIPA together with the Internet. We can have a lot of power. And most importantly remember this: lots of snowflakes can create an avalanche. Thank you very much.