Previously on THE BIG TECH QUESTION… Joe McNamara put the case for censoring the Internet. As Newton said, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, so Jos Kelly presents the opposing view.

The issue of Internet regulation and net neutrality has become an increasingly important subject in the past decade. The 2017 Conservative manifesto spoke to the debate in the boldest terms, while European net-neutrality laws were re-written as recently as last year. In a topic as poorly delineated as this, the boundaries of the debate as well as the issues within it are equally unclear.

What is certain is that society at large will be affected by the cumulative consequences of these evolving discussions – Internet regulation will infringe upon freedom to access information, entertainment and services. This will have a marked impact on society that will go beyond the suppression of our liberties. Here, I want to focus on the adverse effects to society Internet regulation will bring about, and state my case for why it must be resisted in all forms.

A disinterested pathway

One of my fundamental concerns about Internet regulation is the difficulty of appointing those deemed ‘qualified’ (and whom is fit to judge that? And by what standards?) to adjudicate on such matters as what gatekeepers block and permit. On what grounds can we be confident that vesting such enormous power in the hands of a few will not bring about undesirable consequences?

Another of my reservations is about maintaining the sanctity of freedom of expression, which is considered a fundamental right by many in the liberal world. Certainly, it is integral to a pluralistic society. It is worth remembering that the World Wide Web was created to be a space where people could freely share information. This imperfect but crucially impartial platform risks becoming a polluted petri dish, host to ideas considered ‘acceptable’ or ‘right’ that are filtered through the gatekeeper’s pipette. And while there are objective facts, truth is more organic than it might seem. What was true yesterday will not necessarily be true today. This alone should be reason enough to quash any idea that the suppression of speech, religious practices or other modes of expression will benefit society. History teaches us that progress is stultified by such overreaches of power.

Those who advocate for Internet regulation often raise examples of extremist content and hate-crime being spread online. Anything that ferments anger and incites violence is never desirable, which is a large reason why many news outlets do not publicise such material. However, it is patently false that this is an impartial move; the neutral position would have seen the content published. It is not just an act of suppression to refuse controversial material to be published; it is flawed logic to allow – if not indirectly, enable – the innately partisan power of description to illustrate controversy.

Moreover, publishing provocative content allows the public to make up their own mind and become part of an open discussion, enabling the debate to flourish and better inform members of society. It is in our collective interest to be tolerant and to be educated to reason critically, and it is crucial that we are afforded the space to peacefully engage in reasoned discussion. This should be a right, not a privilege. The Internet should not be regulated under the pretext of protection. Gatekeepers must form a disinterested pathway.

A social creation

In conclusion, allow me to raise two final points that rebut the notion that the Internet should be regulated:

  1. The Internet is not responsible for the long history of conflicts and enmity between peoples and states. The Internet should be an impartial platform that hosts the ideas, thoughts and feelings of all, as befits the World Wide Web.
  2. In the event that people are offended by some content, tolerance and critical discussion should be promoted. This will engender understanding, empathy and harmony. The ideas and beliefs held on one side of the debate will not die out immediately if the Internet is regulated. In a globalised society, we must understand one another’s perspectives. After all, an atomised society that is permeated with fear and mistrust is one that is more likely to come into conflict with one another.

This topic draws few hard lines. Ultimately however, Internet regulation impinges on freedom of expression, freedom of choice and freedom to progress. While Orwell would speak well to this topic, it seems more fitting that the founder of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners Lee, has the last word: “The web is more a social creation than a technical one. I designed it for a social effect – to help people work together…We need diversity of thought in the world to face new challenges.”

Authored by: Jos Kelly
photo credit: (Backbone Campaign)