Fake news, fake ads, fake accounts, bots, Russians interfering with our elections.... Suddenly, people are waking up to the idea that the internet is a highly chaotic, ungoverned meta-world with practically no regulation. This awakening is long overdue.
Facebook under attack
Congress wants answers. It's caveat emptor if someone boosts (pays to advertise) a Facebook post about a new fruit smoothie that prevents cancer, heart disease, and warts. Who cares if you use Facebook to advertise fruit smoothies with mystical healing powers to stupid people? But suggest to a professional politician that the same exact Facebook advertising might adversely affect that politician's ability to get reelected, and it's time for a congressional hearing.
Let's get right to where this is ultimately going. In America, we enjoy the rule of law, and to that end, there are laws that protect our freedom of speech and laws that prohibit the dissemination of child pornography and the propagation of hate speech. The laws are not as sophisticated as our technology, nor can they ever hope to adapt at the speed of technological change. But we have laws about what can and what cannot be said, and we have courts to adjudicate those laws.
How Congress could kill the internet
Congress will not try to establish a Ministry of Truth (although there are some politicians who would welcome the opportunity to do so); Congress will attempt to establish a Ministry of Accountability. After all, if you can't control what people say, you can establish a bureaucracy that holds people accountable for what they say. With new internet regulations in place, there would be legal remedies available to aggrieved parties, and you'd know whom to sue!
"The Social Media and Search Neutrality Act of 2018"
The nightmare scenario goes something like this: Congress decides that it is too dangerous for the internet to be unregulated. Congress knows it can't control what people say, but it can make sure it knows who is saying it. So the first provisions in the hypothetical Social Media and Search Neutrality Act of 2018 will require all websites visible in the United States to register with the government, obtain a "web license," and purchase a government-regulated Secure Sockets Layer certificate. These few provisions will radically alter the fabric of the internet, but the government will not stop there.
In order to ensure that only registered websites are visible, the government will have to regulate search engines and browser software. Search engines (specifically Google) will only be allowed to surface legal websites in search results, and to make doubly sure that everyone complies with the new law, browsers such as Safari, Chrome, Explorer, etc. will be modified (by law) so they only display legal websites.
Then, the government will regulate Facebook, Twitter, and all the other social media networks by requiring them to remove all fake, bot, and anonymous accounts. Facebook already attempts to be in the identity business. Technically, you have to be you (picture, email account) to get a Facebook profile. But the new regulations will require a passport, driver's license, or other verification of identity to participate in a social network. As you know, Twitter is in the anonymity business. With the exception of verified users, you have no way to know who anyone is on Twitter. Accountability will require the end of anonymity. Congress will recognize this and do its best to make it so.
Imagine an internet where everyone was known to you. No more anonymous comments, posts, or content. Everything online would be attached to a person or to a business entity that was 100 percent accountable for what was posted. It sounds good, and in some alternative universe it might be possible. But it's just not going to happen. No matter what Congress tries to do.
My cynical view
I'm not sure which is worse, an unregulated internet (which is what we have now) or a half-regulated internet (with half of those sites and profiles being faked or hacked anyway), which is what we will have if Congress attempts to regulate any of this. There is no way to regulate the Internet in a democracy. It cannot be done.
If you want to understand what a 90 percent regulated internet looks like, visit mainland China and spend some time online. The Great Firewall of China imposes an impressive set of restrictions on its digital citizenry. I don't think anything like that would ever get traction here. But if that's not the goal of regulation, what is?
The free and open internet has not fulfilled its promise. The paid and closed internet has amplified confirmation bias and tribalism beyond reason. Facts, opinions, and commentary are all conflated to a locus of incredulity. And now, we find ourselves at the event horizon of a major inflection point. We are just about to enter a world enriched and augmented by real-time data. We are just learning what it means to be instantly connected and connectable to 4 billion fellow humans and a few smart machines. Regulation may have a place, but we must think long and hard about what unintended consequences lay ahead.
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Author's note: This is not a sponsored post. I am the author of this article and it expresses my own opinions. I am not, nor is my company, receiving compensation for it.