The tech gi­ants op­er­ate like cars with­out brakes. They must be reined in

The Guardian Australia - - Opinion - Si­mon Jenk­ins

The stu­pid­est article I ever wrote, in the 1990s, fore­cast that the in­ter­net would ben­e­fit just two groups of peo­ple: lawyers and pornog­ra­phers. I was wrong. I and mil­lions of oth­ers have ben­e­fited vastly from this in­no­va­tion. But I was right in one re­spect: that its bless­ings would be mixed.

Not a day passes with­out apoc­a­lyp­tic wails against the in­ter­net. It pro­motes pae­dophilia, groom­ing, bul­ly­ing, ha­rass­ment, trolling, hu­mil­i­a­tion, in­tru­sion, false ac­cu­sa­tion and li­bel. It aids ter­ror­ism, cy­ber­war­fare, po­lit­i­cal ly­ing, fake news, state cen­sor­ship, sum­mary in­jus­tice. It en­riches a tiny few, dodges taxes, re­spects no bor­ders and forces mil­lions out of work.

The in­ter­net companies, while pre­tend­ing to be util­i­ties not pub­lish­ers, ma­nip­u­late and cen­sor news. They see hu­mans as al­go­rithm fac­to­ries, bun­dled for max­i­mum ad­ver­tis­ing rev­enue. The “global vil­lage” is no vil­lage at all, just tril­lions of zom­bie con­sumers hard-wired to a hand­set. Who on Earth thought it a good idea?

There is no bet­ter il­lus­tra­tion of this than yes­ter­day’s Bri­tish gov­ern­ment green pa­per on the dan­ger to chil­dren and young peo­ple posed by so­cial me­dia. Min­is­ters have just dis­cov­ered class­room in­tim­i­da­tion, on­line groom­ing and child sex­ual ex­ploita­tion. Par­ents have been scream­ing for years about the pres­sures their off­spring are sub­jected to. The rough and tum­ble

of the tra­di­tional play­ground is be­ing re­placed by a murky uni­verse of taunt­ing, com­par­ing, boast­ing and in­duced in­se­cu­rity. Chil­dren are forced to judge them­selves by how oth­ers see them. Men­ace lurks be­hind ev­ery click.

Wil­liam Storr’s new book, Selfie, ar­gues that so­cial me­dia ren­ders us all, chil­dren in­cluded, lone­lier and even more nar­cis­sis­tic. It has meant soar­ing rates of “self-harm, eat­ing dis­or­der, de­pres­sion, anx­i­ety and body dys­mor­phia”. Or, as Michael Har­ris puts it in his study of the new soli­tude, young peo­ple are “be­com­ing so­cially obese, gorged on con­stant con­nec­tion, but never prop­erly nour­ished”.

Were the cause a ram­pag­ing virus, a cli­matic change or an in­vad­ing army, there would be an outcry. Con­fer­ences would be sum­moned, the UN would meet and treaties be signed. But be­cause the harm is con­tained in our most se­cret gar­den, men­tal health, it is treated as “the price we pay” for the in­ter­net’s won­ders. Ex­perts can­not grasp that the in­ter­net might have be­come not a boon but a curse.

The gov­ern­ment’s pro­pos­als are be­yond pa­thetic. In­ter­net companies will be asked “to con­trib­ute vol­un­tar­ily” (since they pay so lit­tle tax) for “mea­sures to com­bat and raise aware­ness”. They will be asked to “tar­get is­sues”, “boost ef­forts” and “re­port an­nu­ally” on child abuse im­ages. Ev­ery­thing will be vol­un­tary, for fear of of­fend­ing the gods of Face­book, In­sta­gram and Twit­ter. There will be a code of prac­tice, but noth­ing to “re­strict growth and in­no­va­tion”. The cas­cade of buzz­words reads like a spoof of the BBC satire, W1A.

This is par for the course. Never has an in­dus­try at­tained such global dom­i­nance with so lit­tle ef­fort at reg­u­la­tion. Search en­gines are like cars on mo­tor­ways with no re­quire­ment for brakes, emis­sion con­trols or seat­belts. The fail­ure to reg­u­late, let alone prop­erly tax, these mas­sive cor­po­ra­tions is the gross­est lapse of modern gov­ern­ment. Their size and reach lets them dis­re­gard the harm they do and the tax­pay­ers they short-change. We seem to think they must be OK be­cause they wear Tshirts to work.

His­to­ri­ans of the in­ter­net, from An­drew Keen and Evgeny Moro­zov to Franklin Foer and Jamie Bartlett, have noted how eas­ily the state has let firms off the hook. As the in­dus­try con­cen­trated on mo­nop­o­lis­ing vast gobs of ad­ver­tis­ing rev­enue, gov­ern­ments ig­nored the “dark web”, cater­ing to tastes be­low the sex­ual, fi­nan­cial and even mil­i­tary radar. Where they should have been curb­ing mass in­tru­sion on per­sonal pri­vacy, gov­ern­ments re­alised – as Ed­ward Snow­den re­vealed – that in­tru­sion might serve their own ends. The state and mass data be­gan the most un­holy part­ner­ship in com­mer­cial his­tory.

As a re­sult, reg­u­lat­ing the in­ter­net is today where medicine was in the days of leech­ing and bleed­ing. It seems be­yond the wit of politi­cians to tax bil­lions of dol­lars in rev­enue from the big­gest busi­nesses and rich­est in­di­vid­u­als on Earth. The EU can­not im­pose ad­e­quate reg­u­la­tion on Google or ex­tract suf­fi­cient taxes from Ama­zon or Ap­ple (re­ported to owe £12bn). It seems des­per­ate that a Bri­tish gov­ern­ment can do no more than “raise aware­ness” over the groom­ing and ex­ploita­tion that many par­ents now fear.

I as­sume that na­tions will one day re­volt against the com­mer­cial ban­ditry of the in­ter­net companies. Gov­ern­ments will find the guts to ex­pel, jam or fine them when they mis­be­have. I as­sume that the curse of on­line anonymity will end, and users of the in­ter­net will have to regis­ter their iden­ti­ties. Search en­gines still pre­tend to be “plat­forms not pub­lish­ers” – or, as oth­ers put it, sew­ers not sewage.

But just as the idea of Uber and Airbnb not be­ing “real” ser­vice providers is crum­bling, so is the idea of Google and Face­book as not “real” pub­lish­ers, and thus not re­spon­si­ble for any dam­age done by their con­tent. We await the first class ac­tion suit for a Face­book-in­duced sui­cide.

The worms are turn­ing. Schools in Sil­i­con Val­ley have taken to ban­ning dig­i­tal de­vices from their premises. Hi-tech par­ents know what harm too much screen time can do to their chil­dren. In ad­di­tion, David Sax’s Re­venge of Ana­log de­clares that the re­volt of “real” is at hand. As we pass “peak stuff”, the post-dig­i­tal econ­omy will be about “play”, not ob­jects.

Spend­ing pat­terns are shift­ing to a crav­ing for hu­man con­gre­ga­tion, con­tact and ad­ven­ture. We don’t want to ac­quire things, we want ex­pe­ri­ences. One day, I as­sume, chil­dren and adults alike will cast aside their mobile phones, open their eyes and view re­al­ity afresh.

The in­ter­net is pass­ing through the rob­ber baron phase of cap­i­tal­ism, as man­u­fac­tur­ers did in the 19th cen­tury. Then, as now, gov­ern­ments were too scared to reg­u­late companies, which grew big and ar­ro­gant, and collapsed. I bet this hap­pens to the in­ter­net.

Mean­while, there is no avoid­ing the pri­mary duty of the state: to reg­u­late this in­dus­try to the hilt. Yes­ter­day’s re­port on child harm shows how far it has to go.

• Si­mon Jenk­ins is a Guardian colum­nist

Search en­gines still pre­tend to be 'plat­forms not pub­lish­ers' – or, as oth­ers put it, sew­ers not sewage

‘Never has an in­dus­try at­tained such global dom­i­nance with so lit­tle ef­fort at reg­u­la­tion.’ Pho­to­graph: Alamy Stock Photo

The Face­book Files: sex, vi­o­lence and hate speech – video ex­plainer

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