The internet has become a target of government. Events, including the passage of FOSTA-SESTA and the Congressional testimony of Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg, signal a shift away from US government’s liberal treatment of the internet. In practical terms, this likely means increased regulation of the world wide web through the regulation of technology companies. Because US citizens enjoy broad Constitutional protections, including the right to free speech and freedom of expression, the US government will be limited in what action it can take against US citizens, though public officials are likely to test how far individual protections extend into the cyberworld. Because there is no international bill of civil rights, the US government will be free to impose penalties, such as targeted sanctions, against foreigners who run afoul of US interests. For other governments, how they treat their citizens and foreigners will depend on their laws, but the US government’s move to shape internet regulation will certainty inspire them to take greater regulatory action.
If reactions to the passage of FOSTA-SESTA, which include criticism of the legislative efforts as ineffective and harmful as well as censoring actions by companies like Craigslist, Microsoft, and Google, are any indication, internet companies are likely to respond to increased regulation by restricting user activity. The kinds of reactions inspired by FOSTA-SESTA help feed the narrative fierce opponents of internet regulation have pushed for years. It is a narrative that frames the issue of internet regulation as one of freedom versus government oppression. One of the things Zuckerberg’s Congressional testimony did, however, was showcase the failure of technology companies to protect the interests of users, i.e. their security as well as their rights, because issues like user privacy are a secondary concern to businesses seeking profits. In other words, Facebook demonstrated a need for government action exists. For average people and internet users, the regulation of the internet is actually an issue of individual security versus civil liberties.
For the individuals, freedom on the internet means the freedom to express ones views without legal consequences from government or community bans from social media platforms, such as Facebook. It also means the freedom to explore and cultivate economic opportunities created by the internet. For information technology businesses, it means the ability to craft policies and engage in business practices without legal restrictions or consequences. For the individual, freedom is only possible when there is also security. Just as in the real world, the internet only provides individuals freedom when it also secures that freedom. Without a reasonable right to privacy, for example, the cost of participating in the internet, or even living in a world where the internet impacts all aspects of life, becomes so great that freedom empowers wrongdoers and oppression forces, which undermines individual freedoms for everyone. In other words, the internet becomes illiberal.
Regulating the internet is, in reality, an issue of individual rights versus community rights. A lack of regulation empowers powerful actors, such as businesses and individuals with the expertise to harness the power of technology to further their interests at the expense of others, to victimize average individuals. Improper and too much regulation empowers governments to oppress those who lack the means to protect themselves. A lack of regulation fosters communities where the powerful are free to do as they please. Community rights and the struggle to balance them with individual rights on the internet parallel cultural rights, such as the rights of religious groups, and the struggle to protect cultural rights without crushing the civil liberties of individuals. To protect the freedom of a community, the freedoms of individuals must often be regulated while the freedoms of the community must be regulated to protect the freedom of an individual.
Proper regulation is an issue of protecting and balancing the freedom of individuals and groups of individuals. The current effort to regulate the internet is centered on preventing the open sexual exploitation of people and, to a larger extend, ensuring a reasonable right to privacy. Ill-democratic to non-democratic governments have long approached the interest as a vector to seize power and oppress while the US government is slowly responding to the need for internet governance. Europe, in contrast, has been trying to achieve balance between freedom and regulation on the internet for some time. Google, for example, recently lost a high-profile case surrounding the so-called “right to be forgotten” while Europe is also likely to confront Facebook over the Cambridge Analytica Scandal. Europeans have failed to fully address the negative implications of their policies and legal actions actions, but they are leading the charge to regulate the internet and they are most likely to hold internet giants accountable when their business models fail to actually protect individual rights.
Quite frankly, democratic governments and information companies technology need to proactively work together to protect and balance freedoms on the internet. They need to proactively address the negatives of the internet. Unfortunately, governments, for the most part, are likely unprepared to actually regulate the internet in a meaningful or effective manner without imposing unnecessary costs nor are they prepared to protect individuals who become victims of the internet. Technology firms like Google and Facebook have an interest in suppressing internet regulation, because their business models are predicated on the violation of privacy rights. They need to help shape regulation to protect legitimate business activities on the internet and proactively transform themselves before they create more problems. For Facebook and Google, the internet experience is a choice, but the choice is often made for internet users, because the business models of these companies require them to either exclude users who seek to protect their privacy or make it practically impossible to assert their rights.
What Facebook and Google have in common, like a great number of internet and social media giants, is a business model that exploits user data to derive profit. Facebook, Google Plus, nor almost any other social media platform is just a platform for the exchange of ideas that happens to use advertisements as a revenue source. They are not interactive newspapers or online forums. Social media platforms are data gathering platforms that project a casual atmosphere in order to lure users into a false sense of security and record exploitable details about their lives. Traditional media sources, for example, have always relied on demographic data to sell ad space and derive ad revenue while traditional data gathering firms have also relied on surveys, which require explicit consent, to derive profits. What the likes of Facebook and Google do is abuse their access to massive amounts of personal data to give their products a competitive edge. They do not sell ads; they sell targeted ads. They stalk users and violate their privacy to drive sales of their specialized products above those of their competitors.
If Facebook wanted to simply be a social media platform, it could easily do that by setting limits on how targeted its ads can be. Google can do the same. Facebook, Google, and every other internet giant that exploits the private data of users to target the services of their clients can secure a reasonable right to privacy for all internet users by embracing a more traditional and more responsible view on ad sales. Advertisers like to know their ad dollars are translating into sales, but that is a modern sales tactic invented by companies like Facebook and Google to eke out a competitive edge. Sponsorship of more traditional media has never guaranteed sales. In many ways, the inability of advertisers to target consumers forced advisers, such as newspaper and television stations, to protect the privacy of viewers. It also helped subsidize the components of traditional media news sources that were less popular and/or more expensive, i.e. expertise, investigative reporting, and vetting. It also helped secure unpopular views and prevent most of the other social issues unique to information technology.
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