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.

Further Reference

Session descrip­tion