Depending on how you see these things, you can argue that the prominence of a subject like global regulation of the internet on the agenda for the G8 leaders this week is proof of the Deauville summit‘s compelling importance. Or alternatively, that it testifies to its abject irrelevance.
The Anglo-Saxon temptation is to say that putting the internet on the agenda is a Deauville diversion conjured up by the incorrigibly dirigiste French state. Nicolas Sarkozy has always wanted to make the internet a frontline political issue. This week in Paris, he has hosted an “eG8″, where he told an audience of online grandees, Rupert Murdoch among them, that the internet could not be a parallel universe without rules and that governments must not allow the internet to remain unchecked. Given France’s top-down traditions and its complexes about the Anglo-world, David Cameron smells a rat. “We will not be regulating the internet any time soon,” Downing Street announced prior to the summit.
Yet whatever one’s qualms about Sarkozy and his plan, he is surely on to something that should not be so sweepingly dismissed. Looking at British politics this week, it is hard to make an intellectually serious case that internet regulation issues should not be raised. Not only has the balance between parliament, the courts and the media been made to look irrelevant over superinjunctions by the twitterati, but almost the first act of the new Scottish government on Thursday was to promise a clampdown on internet sectarian hate postings. The fact that Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg also popped up this week with the casual suggestion that children under 13 should be able to use social networking sites dramatically underlines the argument that there are issues of importance to discuss here.
Whether a session at the G8 summit is the most appropriate place to tackle them is a different question. What needs to be acknowledged, however, is that Sarkozy is right about the principle. The internet cannot exist in some undiscussable and untouchable dimension of human activity. It is a human creation. It affects human lives in all sorts of increasing ways. Morality and the rule of law should apply on the internet as elsewhere in human conduct. As such, it is an absolutely proper subject for governments to consider, though naturally with sensitivity.
The fact the internet has been spawned in an ecology of deregulation and start-up innovation is undoubtedly part of its awesome and still spiralling potency. So is the role that it has played in the Arab spring and in revolution in media. And so is the fact no business wants to be regulated more than it can handle. But these things must not mean that a democratic discussion about the internet’s proper place in modern life is off limits. And they certainly do not mean the current regulatory situation is satisfactory. The internet continues to pose unanswered questions about the way that privacy, family life, markets and government can be well conducted in the modern world. These subjects cannot be taboo just because the people who own the internet wear jeans.
We have got to get past the fallacy that rules that existed in the pre-internet era are obsolete because the internet makes it so difficult to enforce them. To obey the injunctions of the courts over privacy, for example, is in principle right, not wrong. The fact that the internet makes it possible to circumvent those injunctions does not negate their worth or seriousness. It merely makes it imperative to consider the ways in which such constraints can be fairly enforced in the new media. That may not be as difficult as it may seem.
Far more important are the questions of internet access to unsuitable material, especially but not solely by children, as well as the danger to children from inadequately policed social media. Merely to write such a sentence is to invite outrage in some quarters, but these issues are all too easy for a society to ignore until they return to haunt us. It is beyond serious dispute that the internet has placed much greater amounts of pornography within far easier reach of many more people, including children, than at any other time in human history. And it is inconceivable that this is a development without destructive consequences.
Downing Street’s disavowal of regulation this week was unfortunate. Apart from anything else, it threatens to undermine important discussions which have been under way for many months between the culture minister Ed Vaizey and the industry in an attempt to place some new curbs on internet pornography. Since last year – and as recently as last week – Vaizey has been pressing internet service providers to automatically block all sex sites, with individuals being required to opt in to access them, rather than the current system, which requires individuals to opt out through the use of parental controls. Given that such a high proportion of internet access in this country comes through four major ISPs, this is an achievable goal. But the Downing Street statement risks pulling the rug out from under these thoroughly desirable efforts.
Is this Downing Street disavowal a cock-up or a conspiracy? Hopefully the former. But it is a fact Google’s chairman, Eric Schmidt, said after the eG8 that “You want to stay away from regulating brand new industries”. And it is also a fact that Cameron’s strategy director, Steve Hilton, is married to Google’s head of communications, Rachel Whetstone. My guess is that the public overwhelmingly prioritises the protection from pornography and social-network grooming above the inadequate self-regulation of the dotcom giants. My guess is that Cameron agrees. But he needs to make his priorities clearer.
To argue for controls over the internet may not be cool. But the internet was surely not meant to be this way. The geniuses who created the modern web and made it so exciting did not do so in order to create the largest pornography bombardment in human history, to have a global email system weighed down by spam, to encourage hostile hacking into national security secrets, to embolden sectarian bigots to violent threats or mere gossipers to say ill-considered things under the protection of pseudonymity. Of course governments must not be heavy-handed in the way they undo these things. Of course the industry needs to be fostered not fettered. But all revolutions generate unintended consequences that need to be put right. The internet is no different, except that it is a global revolution. And global questions require global answers.
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