Canon Ian Ellis: The internet has both the freedom and lawlessness that the Wild West once did

As a result of the brutal murder of Sir David Amess MP the subject of online abuse of politicians has been highlighted..

By Ian Ellis
Thursday, 28th October 2021, 2:13 pm
Updated Thursday, 28th October 2021, 3:13 pm
Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, above right, raised issues of concern in her appearance before Westminster’s Draft Online Safety Bill committee
Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, above right, raised issues of concern in her appearance before Westminster’s Draft Online Safety Bill committee

Indeed, Westminster is currently considering steps to bring about more internet regulation.

Then again, the recent appearance of former Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen before the US Senate as well as before Westminster’s Draft Online Safety Bill joint committee raised many issues of concern.

While Facebook disputed aspects of her testimony, where would we be without whistleblowers?

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Questions surrounding the whole topic of the digital future were discussed recently by representatives of a range of international church organisations at a meeting in Berlin.

Issues regarding the accountability of large online platforms, such as Facebook and Google, and the implications of the digital revolution were to the fore in discussions.

It was reported that the researcher Goran Buldioski observed how technology companies have “largely had a free rein to decide on many aspects of the functioning of digital public space and tech governance for the last two decades”.

Indeed, some people ask just who rules the world nowadays, the captains of digital industry or plain old governments?

In our western world, which prizes freedom of expression, people are being challenged to think about the nature of this digital frontier land.

Is it a ‘wild west’ situation or is that to overstate fears?

The American frontier period saw migrants making settlements as they moved from east to west, the actual frontier therefore moving gradually in that direction as settlements were established.

In his ‘History of the American People’, Paul Johnson describes the frontier as “land occupied by two or more but less than six persons, on average, per square mile”.

That ‘wild west’ is the stuff of much fiction, typically featuring duels with whatever law enforcement officials happened to be around.

In many ways the internet appears to be a new form of that frontier experience — freedom and wide openness in a space that is difficult to regulate.

At the Berlin gathering, Dennis Smith, a former president of the World Association for Christian Communication, asked in relation to the diverse new digital realm: “Here, we ask, how are the boundaries of membership set?

“ Who sets the rules of engagement?

“How does the community decide what issues are to be raised and how are they to be decided?”

In the case of print publications, it is relatively straightforward to know who is publishing what and where those publishers can be found.

When it comes to the internet, however, things are very different.

Websites are run from anywhere and everywhere and precisely where and by whom can be a complete mystery.

One important issue is termed ‘net neutrality’, which refers to the importance of companies providing internet services in a way that treats all users without discrimination, thereby ruling out, for example, disadvantaging small businesses in order to create a more favourable environment for the large corporations.

Then there is the whole subject of privacy, which is a difficult area because internet communications must pass through complex digital infrastructure.

The protection of internet users’ privacy is naturally of great importance, not least when it comes to online financial transactions.

In a background resource article for the Berlin meeting, the leader of the Protestant Church in Germany, Bishop Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, posed the rhetorical question: “Who knows me best?”

He said he thought it would surely be his wife of 35 years, but continued: “A study conducted by Facebook a few years ago, however, seems to suggest I should be less certain about this. The study showed that Facebook’s algorithm — the mechanically programmed evaluation of a large trove of data points — already knows people’s personalities better than their friends, parents and partners.”

The digital realm touches on so many aspects of human life, personally and more generally.

It has taken centre-stage during the current coronavirus emergency, creating a new awareness of how people can go online to work and also to engage with each other socially.

It reaches into the global financial system, medical research and equipment, government, military capacity, transport, entertainment.

You name it.

Even the church has discovered a new means of outreach.

This digital realm has brought huge benefits to the world, enabling advances in so many areas of life and of human endeavour.

My own reservations, as one who is certainly a user of digital technology but is not an expert, tend to centre around the actual security of the internet’s infrastructure, the pressures that young people can experience on social media, the rank abuse that so frequently is meted out, and the ability of criminals to roam cyberspace and to attack often with impunity.

Yet, as with the American frontier, hopefully things will ultimately settle into a more secure environment, but this will require careful and positive action.

America, like every other country, is not free from crime and one imagines that the internet will never be crime-free either, but it is the responsibility both of the nations of the world and the large technology corporations to learn to co-operate in enabling the digital realm to be the best it can be for everyone.

• Canon Ian Ellis is a former editor of The Church of Ireland Gazette

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