Current Issue #488

Modern Times: The internet has no conscience, but should the state intervene?

Modern Times: The internet has no conscience, but should the state intervene?

The open slather of the internet has introduced an avalanche of competing and conflicting challenges, from online bullying and trolling to privacy concerns and corporate espionage.

The extent to which the state should intervene in our lives is an issue that will remain a part of political debate. Government intervention in respect to taxation, and the programs on which revenue generated will be spent, will be a critical element in the 2019 federal election. A new dimension has emerged that demands state intervention, yet our political discourse has been extremely slow in coming to terms with the issue.

In China, the use of artificial intelligence to monitor its citizens, and the emerging social credit system which will justify its expanding role in their lives, will one day realise a synthesis of Orwell’s dystopian visions Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. Those who follow such things in ‘freer’ societies consider these increasingly evident features of modern China with concern. Surveillance of unknowing citizens has been a growing feature across all societies, however, for well over a decade.

The recently released book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power provides an excellent perspective on the evolution of this problem, and the extent of the danger. It was Google that first developed a ‘one-way mirror’ that used automation to deduce the thoughts, feelings, intentions and interests of individuals and groups, to behavioural data without the users’ consent or, in most cases, awareness.

The dangers increasingly evident on the internet, a recently developed and dynamically evolving paradigm which remains difficult to limit and harder to police, and not limited to issues of privacy. The internet is a domain that encourages the darker angels in human kind, as threats and intimidation can take place behind the veil of anonymity.

Incidences of bullying are increasing and common, and have a real impact on the actual health and wellbeing of people.

Many school children, in particular, are struggling to cope with such insidious behaviour. Unlike the school yard, monitoring of online bullying is largely beyond the collective capacity of parents, teachers and police. Too many victims have failed to cope with sustained attacks from those who enjoy the faceless, distant refuge the internet provides.

Corporations and governments are similarly at risk. The integrity of our democratic systems can more easily be compromised because of the internet, and corporate espionage can be achieved from a safer distance. Both business and governments are better equipped, and apparently more determined, to protect themselves from attack. Individuals, on the other hand, enjoy limited protection in a limitless space.

This new dimension needs the urgent attention of legislators, and should feature prominently in political debate. Indeed, it is surprising this does not demand considerable attention. Is the internet considered too large a beast to pacify or temper? Is the mastery of it beyond our contemplation, or its transnational nature beyond the wisdom of the current generation of leaders?

Too much is at stake for it to continue to be ignored in public debate but thus far, the contribution of either side of politics has been subdued. As the conservatives are less inclined to intervention and regulation, debate on this issue will need to be led by progressive parties. When this new dimension finally becomes a subject of political debate, old adages are sure to be applied to this new issue. One side will be accused of negligent abandon, the other of encouraging a nanny state.

As the internet has no conscience, intervention is needed. The relationship between the state and the internet will be a question that defines the society that will emerge over coming decades. It is a debate we need to have.


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