The internet celebrated its 28th birthday a fortnight ago. It’s an invention that ranks alongside the wheel, immunisation against disease and the internal combustion engine as a transformer of human existence. As an open information digital connector, it is an extraordinary force for individual liberation, embodying the very best of Enlightenment values: more information is available to more people through their mobile phones and personal computers than ever before.
The world can then follow the Enlightenment injunction to dare to know to a degree that the great philosophers, arguing for a free public realm where information and evidence could be openly marshalled and tested for human betterment, could never have foreseen.
Over the last 18 months, it has become obvious that the internet is the most serious threat to the Enlightenment values it purports to represent. As Tim Berners-Lee, the web’s inventor, wrote in a salutary open letter to mark its birthday, these are worrying times. The combination of losing control of our personal data, the monumental growth of misinformation and fake news and evolution of abusive, targeted “programmatic” advertising, particularly political advertising, constitutes a mortal threat to our civilisation.
There is a new capacity to manipulate opinion and control our lives by companies, governments and political parties that makes Orwell’s warnings seem tame. Trump in the US and Brexit in Europe, events possibly influenced by the new disregard for fact and capacity to manipulate, are but storm warnings of where these trends are taking us. How we spend money, formulate ideas and cast votes are manipulatable and controllable as never before.
In the UK, the government has taken powers to survey and monitor our emails and texts. In the private sector, Facebook and Google know more about our preferences, which can be shamelessly exploited by political and commercial advertisers. Worse, on Wednesday, as the government triggers article 50, we are set to leave one of the great sources of countervailing power and digital protection – the European Union. This will be presented as “liberation” by Leavers: rather, it is a moment of enthralment, when Britain weakens its capacity to combine with others to fight for Enlightenment freedoms against the digital behemoths that would dismantle them. One battleground became more vivid last week – the struggle to create a level playing field between information producers, such as publishers and newspapers, and those making fortunes, such as Facebook and Google, by making content available online. The law has developed to balance publishing freedoms with necessary responsibilities. Even most libertarians accept that publishing freedoms should not extend to incitements to murder, race hatred or violence. Equally, defamation and libel law tries to protect against the dissemination of falsehood and lies. Publishers and newspapers spend a great deal of money on getting their facts right to comply with the law. Readers have come to trust that what they read will have been rigorously screened to be true.
The founding principle of the open worldwide web is that it is open. The great claim of Google and Facebook is that they are not publishers, but intermediaries and search engines that use this system to make universal digital wares produced by others. They have built an infrastructure to house data and refresh web pages in unthinkable volumes – Facebook has 1.9bn users, more than a quarter of humanity – to which advertisers are flocking. They are phenomenally profitable – Facebook’s revenues in the last three months of 2016 were $8.8bn – and they organise their affairs to pay as little tax as possible. Facebook sells advertising by enabling users to read what newspapers have published; newspapers lose the advertising revenue but still must comply with the law. The internet companies’ claim, supported by US law, is that they are conduits for information and are not publishers subject to the expensive business of ensuring that what their users access is true, non-defamatory and does not incite civilisation-damaging behaviour. It is bunkum.
Worse, the advertising draining from newspapers is reaching such a scale that the viability of a free press is under threat. Online newspapers can charge subscribers, but still need advertising to support journalism and the expensive edifice of complying with publishing law. At the very least, as upholders of true news, they should be competing with Google and Facebook on equal terms.
Last week, Google, owner of YouTube, had to accept that it has publishing responsibilities, a landmark moment. Advertisers were not prepared to see their ads alongside videos celebrating terrorism and Google, faced with a mounting strike from clients, acknowledged that it would have to police its videos and ads more rigorously. Meanwhile, the German government, with the EU commission, is preparing to fine social networking sites up to $50m if they fail to take down fake news, hate speech and defamatory content within 24 hours of it being posted. German competition authorities are taking Facebook to court for issuing blanket, incomprehensible consumer agreements that mean users have to cede all rights over their personal data. The EU commission has confirmed that it is considering whether the approach to harvesting personal data breaches EU anti-trust rules and the EU’s data protection directive, coming into force next year, has given every EU citizen the right to ensure their data is not abused.
It is a battle that, by 2019, British citizens will be fighting alone. Leavers live in a fantasy world in which these battles can be better fought without the EU. But the fight against fake news, abuse of personal data and the battle for more digital transparency is international. The EU is the power bloc that takes the challenge to insist data and information are properly used more seriously than any other. Donald Trump is no ally: he has repealed the US oil and mining industries’ digital obligation to reveal payments to foreign governments and his embrace of fake news is notorious.
Tim Berners-Lee’s warnings are profound. If an open internet is to benefit humanity and not degenerate into a vehicle to oppress us, then we have to stand with others to exercise equivalent power. From Wednesday, that will be very much harder – perhaps one of the most important reasons to regret the folly of Brexit.