Mak­ing the web a ‘bet­ter’ place

The Southern Berks News - - OPINION - Com­men­tary >> Gene Policin­ski Gene Policin­ski Colum­nist

We’d all like a “bet­ter” in­ter­net in terms of pri­vacy, po­lite­ness, taste and safety. And who would op­pose elim­i­nat­ing false or mislead­ing in­for­ma­tion from so­cial me­dia sites, or pre­vent­ing on­line bul­ly­ing and such? Last week, some of the world’s most sig­nif­i­cant, in­flu­en­tial and pow­er­ful fig­ures around such is­sues — in the words of The Wall Street Jour­nal, “the gi­ants of the web” — gath­ered at the 2018 Web Sum­mit in Lis­bon, Por­tu­gal and in Brus­sels at an in­ter­na­tional con­fer­ence on data pri­vacy and pol­icy.

At the Lis­bon meet­ing, an au­di­ence re­port­edly cheered for a pro­posed in­ter­na­tional in­sti­tute to pro­pose reg­u­la­tions world­wide on so­cial me­dia. Web in­ven­tor Tim Bern­ers-Lee called for pri­vate com­pa­nies, gov­ern­ments and in­ter­net users to unite around what he called a “con­tract for the Web,” a nine­point plan with goals to pro­tect per­sonal pri­vacy, cre­ate on­line meth­ods to coun­ter­act ha­rass­ment and hate speech and for uni­ver­sal ac­cess to the web.

In Brus­sels, Ap­ple CEO Tim Cook ad­vo­cated for the U.S. to adopt the Euro­pean Union’s strict data pri­vacy law, en­acted in May, al­low­ing con­sumers to re­view, edit and delete per­sonal in­for­ma­tion on the web. Cook warned that tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vances are lead­ing to a “data in­dus­trial com­plex” and that “our own in­for­ma­tion, from the ev­ery­day to the deeply per­sonal, is be­ing weaponized against us with mil­i­tary ef­fi­ciency.”

So much for the once-hoped for era of “peace, love and har­mony” that the World Wide Web was sup­posed to usher in on be­half of all hu­man­ity.

Still, we’ve been here be­fore — and need to keep in mind we’ve over­re­acted to the threats, real and imag­ined, posed by new tech­nol­ogy be­fore di­al­ing down reg­u­la­tions and codes to a rea­son­able com­pro­mise on free ex­pres­sion, pri­vacy and safety.

Early con­cerns about pri­vacy noted that the new-fan­gled tele­phone could ring into a home at any hour of the day, while proper guests of the day would knock on the door and an­nounce them­selves.

In movies, the “Hays Code” was adopted by Hol­ly­wood film­mak­ers in the early 1930s to head off moves to have Congress set strict stan­dards for what movies could show across a wide range of top­ics and is­sues — from com­ments about the law and drug use to sex and vi­o­lence. Like­wise in tele­vi­sion, the “Tele­vi­sion Code” was adopted by the Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of Broad­cast­ers un­der threat of a gov­ern­ment coun­cil to set rules.

From 1952 to 1983, the code ruled on ev­ery­thing from how ac­tors dressed to ref­er­ences to re­li­gion, sex, fam­ily life and more.

Fa­mously, the code re­sulted in mar­ried cou­ples shown on TV only us­ing dou­ble beds and in 1952, when the star of “I Love Lucy,” Lu­cille Ball, be­came preg­nant, that word was not per­mit­ted — the show was al­lowed to say only that she was “with child” or “ex­pect­ing.”

When the sound of a flush­ing toi­let was heard in 1971 in an episode of the ground­break­ing sit­com, “All in the Fam­ily,” it re­flected a grow­ing de­mand by the pub­lic for re­al­ism rather than the un­re­al­is­tic de­pic­tions of ev­ery­day life that the code had en­cour­aged.

Note that all of those over­re­ac­tive at­tempts to reg­u­late came early in the de­vel­op­ment of those medi­ums of ex­pres­sion.

The web is barely out of its teenage years, in ef­fect, and so­cial me­dia mega­liths such as Face­book and Twit­ter are even younger. The web’s rev­o­lu­tion­iz­ing im­pact ex­tends from newly ac­ces­si­ble pub­lic records to in­stant global com­mu­ni­ca­tion. And our re­liance on so­cial me­dia as a means of re­port­ing news, record­ing our lives and re­lay­ing our views is un­like any­thing seen in gen­er­a­tions, if any­thing be­fore.

But if his­tory is a guide — and it is — we need to tem­per calls to “pro­tect” our­selves from that which we do not like or find dan­ger­ous, lest we re­place such with cen­sored, san­i­tized and gov­ern­ment-reg­u­lated mes­sages or con­tent in­tended to pacify rather than pro­voke and in­form.

There may well be a need to rein in the wild web, to set pri­vacy bound­aries and fight real mis­use.

But we must be cer­tain that the con­trol over what we see, hear, say and ac­cess re­mains as close to our own fin­ger­tips as pos­si­ble — and not handed over to some “Na­tional Nanny” claim­ing to act on our be­half, lest we be con­fined to a fu­ture of shad­ows on the wall, dou­ble beds and a view of life where no one ever uses a toi­let.

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