The Declaration on the Principles of the Law Governing the Internet is yet another bleak reminder of how far we’ve strayed from Internet Exceptionalism and John Perry Barlow’s 1996 Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace
“You claim there are problems among us that you need to solve. You use this claim as an excuse to invade our precincts. Many of these problems don’t exist. Where there are real conflicts, where there are wrongs, we will identify them and address them by our means. We are forming our own Social Contract. This governance will arise according to the conditions of our world, not yours. Our world is different.”
“it is an urgent and critical priority for legislatures and governments to ensure that the fundamental rights and safeguards of their citizens are not violated or undermined by the unchecked march of technology.”
For anyone that still believes in the free and open spirit that the Internet
is was, this shift is constantly disheartening.
Before fake news, memes, and POTUS Twitter rants, the Internet was, what philosopher Robert Nozick called, “a Utopia of Utopias.” Many didn’t understand it, some eagerly embraced it, some feared it, but regardless, there existed a common understanding in that whatever it is, the Internet is unique and therefore should be treated as such. With that, CDA 230 was born.
CDA 230: The Law of the Internet
“No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”
It was these twenty six words that defined the Internet and propelled it towards its destiny: Barlow’s Cyberspace. Without the fear of looming liability, developers are free to innovate, web services flourished, and tools for online communication exploded.
Taken together, these tools constitute a unique medium–known to its users as “cyberspace”–located in no particular geographical location but available to anyone, anywhere in the world, with access to the Internet. The Internet is “a unique and wholly new medium of worldwide human communication,” -Reno v. ACLU
So why the primer on Internet Exceptionalism and CDA 230? Because since the era of Russian troll farms, Twitter fake news bots, Facebook and their “biased algorithms,” election hacking, Alex Jones, and <insert social media controversy of the day here> Internet exceptionalism has become Internet emotionalism where our response to online adversity is another cry for government regulation. CDA 230 is no longer a clearance for digital innovation, but rather, an obstacle for legislators and Parliamentarians alike to overcome. We have become emotional users that have forgotten about the uniqueness of Cyberspace; quick to blame the technology rather than ourselves.
On its face, the Principles of the Law Governing the Internet seems like a viable solution: hold big tech companies and social media (Zuckerberg) accountable for fake news. Punish Facebook and Twitter (the bad guys!) for harboring hate speech and encouraging trolls. The problem with this rhetoric though is that it’s simply dangerous. Because, really, who doesn’t want to get rid of fake news and those annoying Twitter Trump bots? And for those that don’t understand the inner-legal workings of the Internet, this declaration seems like a pretty sound approach.
I’m most baffled how in one line it states:
“The internet is global and law relating to it must derive from globally agreed principles;”
and in another:
“Social Media companies should be held liable if they fail to comply with a judicial, statutory or regulatory order to remove harmful and misleading content from their platforms, and should be regulated to ensure they comply with this requirement”
So the Internet is global and therefore should be regulated based upon global law and globally agreed upon principles…but not including the U.S (don’t forget the First Amendment!) and CDA 230. Remember, 230 essentially says “websites are not liable for third party content,” yet here Parliamentarians are requesting the exact opposite. I’m not sure what word they meant to use but “global” was certainly not it.
Cue: The “Splinternet”
Let’s assume we follow the declaration’s approach in combating fake news and the social media companies that inspire it. The first question is enforcement. There’s obviously a huge conflict here between the suggested principles and 230 (most likely intentional) so who wins? The short answer: nobody. Facebook, for example, has two options: create extremely pared down versions of their service to handle the splintered laws of every country (EU Facebook, U.S Facebook, China Facebook, etc.) which is not only expensive but incredibly difficult to manage and maintain (imagine when each of the different laws change!) OR shutter their service in countries where the compliance costs outweigh ROI.
And what about VPNs? The easy workaround for citizens of different countries wanting to access features of web services unavailable in their area is to VPN (TOR for example) to a country with looser Internet laws and regulations. So what will regulators do next? Firewalls. Each country will have to implement firewalls that block the common VPN protocols. The U.S could also force international IAPs to shut down making it incredibly difficult (and illegal) to send data outside the country entirely: a digital border wall.
The result? The exact opposite of the “global” Internet decried by the Parliamentarians and the declaration’s signees. The online experience of one user is now vastly different from another. Fake news becomes non-existent news. No longer the world-wide-web but instead, a splintered, over-regulated, censorship machine.
There’s no doubt that the social media giants need to clean up their acts when it comes to content moderation. But us users could do our part too in supporting the clean up. We must remember that the Internet, though incredibly different from what it was in 1996, is still unique and therefore should be carefully treated as such when trying to navigate these challenging and controversial issues. We must remember to keep our emotions in check and to respond with our presence, not with our policymakers. The best way to put pressure on these companies to do better when it comes to transparency and accountability is to simply leave the service. Innovate and create new hubs for online conversation. Elevate discussion and report the abusive and unproductive speech.
Obviously, the International Grand Committee on Disinformation and Fake News (lol), is probably not the most influential when it comes to Internet regulation and policy. However, their message is alarming yet seductive and one that should be called out regardless of how inconsequential. We must recognize and combat online censorship rather than bolster and beseech it. As users, it’s our responsibility to be vigilant about our Cyberspace:
“We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.”
We must be exceptional. Not emotional.