Some will recall the questions posed by a committee of our best and brightest senators to Facebook’s Zuck. It was high comedy, between the righteous indignation of angry speechifiers and the cluelessness about tech that could have been explained by their grandchildren, if they bothered to ask.
And yet this donkey show has given rise to nonpartisan consensus: regulate the internet!
Tech regulation may be the only thing on which a polarized Capitol Hill can agree. “We should be suing Google and Facebook and all that, and perhaps we will,” President Trump recently declared. Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Democratic presidential candidate, has made the breakup of tech companies a central plank of her campaign. Even Silicon Valley-friendly contenders like Pete Buttigieg have called for curbs on the industry’s power.
On one side of the equation is whether Trump or Warren will do a better job micromanaging the internet. The answer, obviously, is the person you prefer will do good, while the other person will be horrible. Which is which varies. But everyone believes they should be in control.
Resistance to the regulator’s finger stems from an understanding that the internet was birthed organically, the doors flung open and everybody went in and did what they pleased. The fans of regulation dispute this “myth.”
If Americans buy into the idea that the tech industry is an entrepreneurial, free-market miracle in which government played little part, then the prospect of stricter regulation is ominous. But that isn’t what actually happened. Throughout the history of the tech industry in the United States, the government has been an important regulator, funder and partner. Public policies — including antitrust enforcement, data privacy regulation and rules governing online content — helped make the industry into the innovative juggernaut that it is today. In recent years, lawmakers pulled back from this role. As they return to it, the history of American tech delivers some important lessons.
It’s undeniable that the government has stuck its finger into the web, as Section 230 safe harbor makes clear, but it’s largely been to keep open spaces open rather than to control it. States have tried. The government has tried. The European Union has tried. The web doesn’t really care because no matter what the government does, it’s always a few million steps behind.
Technology will always move faster than lawmakers are able to regulate. The answer to the dilemma is to listen to the experts at the outset, and be vigilant in updating laws to match current technological realities.
The government can regulate the people who use the internet by criminalizing their actions or words, the companies that profit off it by taxing or breaking them into bite-sized nuggets, but it can’t regulate the internet. Sure, there are “experts” who warn of things to come, and the ones who get it right are remembered and the ones who don’t disappear in the ether. But if they think they can corral the mass of humanity online, they’re going to be sorely disappointed.
Washington’s hands-off approach ultimately permitted a marvelous explosion of content and connectivity on social media and other platforms. But the people designing the rules of the internet didn’t reckon with the ways that bad actors could exploit the system. The people building those tools had little inkling of how powerful, and exploitable, their creations would become.
In the early days of the World Wide Web (remember when every url began “www.”?) white hat and black hat hackers battled for hegemony. Guess which ones were more inclined to adhere to rules, to consider the general welfare, than the others? Have we now maxed out the “marvelous explosion of content and connectivity” such that it’s time to shut the door to anyone who doesn’t know the secret password is “halibut”?
Some dread the notion of Trump micromanaging the internet. Others, Warren, or whoever ends up standing after the primary. Then there are some of us who see all the same problems with the internet that everyone else sees, but would rather leave it to the ether, as harsh as it can be at times, than put it in the hands of government micromanagers.
As foolish and myopic as people may be in how they use the internet, their privacy forsaken, their prejudice on display, their hypocritical hatred being their defining social feature, the bad actors taking advantage of every dumbass thing people do online, the only thing worse than what we do to ourselves when left to our own devices is the government drawing lines for us, regardless of how well intended its goals of love, equality and kindness may be.
There was an informal group that made the news a few years back called Anonymous. While I’m not a fan of anarchy, a little anarchy keeps too much control in check. Anonymous promised to bring some anarchy to the internet, and for a time, it reminded governments that they weren’t really in control. Even government can use a lesson in humility every once in a while. Then again, that goes for Anonymous and anarchists as well.
Not having mad hacker skillz, and being of limited ability to do more than type letters on a screen, there wasn’t much I could contribute to the discussion of what the future would bring to the internet. But the one thing I could understand was that every time someone came up with a solution to fix their personal problem online, it imposed one more limit. Whether it was mean words or access to the blind, deaf or emotionally challenged, their “improvement” came at someone else’s expense.
An unregulated internet will be nasty and brutish because people are nasty and brutish, but I would rather take my chances with the nice folks who think Window 95 was a gift from god than the government benevolently micromanaging our ugly humanity. It figures that this would be the one issue on which the left and right could reach consensus: control of the last open space left on earth.