Apparently, Internet regulation is inevitable. The question is, what will this regulation be, who will implement it, and how, writes Valdai Club Chairman Andrey Bystritskiy.
Facebook and the Australian government reached an agreement on February 23 and their differences have been resolved. Australia’s Treasurer Josh Freydenberg said after talking with the head of the social network that Facebook and Australia have become friends again. On the one hand, this is good news: it’s nice when disputes and conflicts are resolved. On the other hand, this message makes you wonder how one can regulate the Internet.
Facebook and the Australian authorities generally argued over money, because Facebook users use the social network not only to exchange funny photos of cats and wish each other happy birthday, but also to post information content, professionally created by the Australian media. As you know, the share of such posts in the total turnover of messages on the Web is very high. Various subjects (both individuals and entire organisations, communities) share articles, stories and the like that interest them, and discuss events that are reflected in the work of the media. It is this freedom, breadth and speed of exchange of various kinds of information that attracts people to social networks.
Social networks make good money on this due to search engines and various information processing algorithms. Moreover, they like to boast that they are beating traditional media, demonstrating the unprecedented indicators of their audience. This leads to a redistribution of income, including in advertising. And it is quite clear that the Australian authorities decided to pass a law that social networks should pay the media for the content they used. This angered Facebook and it blocked news content on its platform in the country. It was already the users’ turn to be indignant. And now it seems like an agreement has been forged between the authorities and the Internet giant.
In general, this story seems very characteristic and important, because the Australians have taken another step in the development of Internet regulation. We don’t know what this step exactly is, we will know when we see the final version of the law after its discussion in the upper house of the Australian parliament. In any case, the Australian Treasurer said the law would be amended.
For example, Eric Schmidt, the former head of Google, noted that “The Internet is the first thing that humanity has built that humanity doesn’t understand, the largest experiment in anarchy that we have ever had.”
And another former employee of Google, Tristan Harris, wrote that the thoughts of millions of people will depend on the choice of a handful of people working for a handful of technology companies.
Of course, there is a certain polemical fervour in both of these statements. And anarchy is not absolute, and the manipulation of public opinion is not limitless. But there is no doubt that there is a problem with the regulation and use of the Internet.
For some time there was an illusion that the Internet would in some way generate some kind of self-regulation, probably analogous to the theory that life was once spontaneously generated out of mud. Unfortunately, this was not the case. The possibilities for self-regulation were limited. Moreover, they came into terrible conflict with the financial model of the Internet. The enchanting wealth that the leading companies on the Internet have managed to extract is the result of anarchy on the Internet. Scattered billions of users, naturally, could not and did not want to use their freedom, they, as is typical for people, quickly and willingly found themselves a new yoke; the social networks are one example. Another fashionable one is Elon Musk’s Clubhouse.
Right now, we are witnessing a coronavirus pandemic, and we see how the reactions of the ordinary population and the elites contradict one another. It is clear that people in general lack solidarity and cohesion. On the one hand, we see the heroism of doctors and the brilliant achievements of scientists, but on the other — wild prejudices, predation, envy and anger. And even in the presence of some kind of international law, more or less developed national systems and relatively stable states, the fight against the pandemic is going quite slowly. If you will, the world immune system in the socio-political sense has turned out to be weak, there was no reaction with the requisite amount of strength on the part of humanity. It’s scary to even think what would have happened if the virus had been more dangerous.
But the same people operate in the new information and communication space. And the Internet has epidemics and pestilences of its own; these are mostly socio-psychological, but no less deadly. And it seems that the “immune system” of the Internet is either absent altogether, or extremely poorly developed.
Regulation, laws, sheriffs and the like arose because people are contradictory and unstable creatures ... some are true villains and bastards. Therefore, it is far from always possible to make do with persuasion; coercion is just as necessary. The question, of course, is proportion. By the way, progress in general can be measured by increasing the proportion of persuasion versus coercion.
In general, Internet regulation is inevitable. The more active the development of the rules of this regulation becomes among those who are more involved in the formation of the information and communication environment, the better things will be for all of us. If you don’t want to be regulated by others, please self-regulate. The Australian example is perhaps more important than we think.
The article was first published in Russian by Izvestia.