RESTON, VIRGINIA – We live in an age of wonder in which half the world now has access to a technology – the internet – that supports people’s health and education, can be a lifeline in a time of disaster or disease, and was designed to be open to everyone but owned by no one. And the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted both its importance and its potential by forcing the world to connect remotely, contact-free, and in real time.
Unfortunately, we also live in an age of fear and suspicion. You don’t even need to “doomscroll” to find claims that the internet is worse than any previous pestilence or war. The internet is the scapegoat for many of today’s problems, including terrorism, child abuse, and even the end of democracy.
But think about it. To believe, for example, that fake news is somehow the internet’s fault is to forget the state propaganda machines perfected in the twentieth century. Likewise, excessive wealth concentration and overly powerful monopolies are not products of the digital age; once upon a time, there were firms like US Steel, Standard Oil, and the British and Dutch East India companies. Some even hold the internet responsible for the decline of civic values and even civility, as though lying politicians and incendiary speech were not possible before Twitter.
Transformative technologies have far-reaching effects on societies and individuals. We are now in a period of social change that is unquestionably attributable in part to the rise of the internet, because the tool has created new opportunities.
Some of those opportunities are socially valuable: people can now communicate easily and cheaply with friends or family far away. Some of them are socially harmful: scammers are almost certain to make money. And some are socially ambiguous: traditional authorities and gatekeepers are losing influence because people have more channels and ways to access information.
But while many of the harms people ascribe to the internet are neither new nor caused by it, governments are seeking to regulate the internet as though they are. Before heading down that path, we had better be sure we are regulating the right thing.
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Consider the problem of today’s giant tech corporations and their effects on commerce and public discourse. Some advocate applying special regulations to these companies when they reach a certain market capitalization or level of revenue. But this is hardly the first time the issue of corporate concentration has arisen. After Standard Oil came to dominate the petroleum industry in the United States and many other countries in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, governments addressed the firm’s power using antitrust policy, not “oil policy.”
Many people also express concern about internet-enabled political interference, both within a given country and from foreign actors. But it is careless and historically inaccurate to attribute this phenomenon entirely to the internet. The US, France, Russia, and China each underwent violent revolutions in pre-internet times. And long before anyone had sent a datagram on the internet, countries were interfering in other countries’ political processes, as both the Soviet Union and the US frequently did during the Cold War.
Political systems, and democracies in particular, depend on the efficient functioning and legitimacy of their governments. It is not possible to solve the problem of popular disaffection with a political regime by controlling information flows from abroad. That was just as true of Russia before 1917, when information was printed on paper, as it is now when it comes in packets of data.
To be sure, some challenges are unique to the internet. For starters, the technology enables more communication at a greater speed than ever before. It is also exceptionally difficult to be confident of the identity of someone online (or even to be confident that it is a person). But these are the types of narrow issues where internet-specific regulation might make sense, if policymakers can be sure that introducing such measures will not negatively affect the internet itself.
The internet is an ecosystem that we need to protect. When considering possible regulations, the best way forward is to undertake an Internet Impact Assessment, much like how we conduct environmental or traffic assessments before deciding whether to build new infrastructure. The evaluation can determine whether a given action will benefit or harm the internet’s underlying health.
Above all, we need to ensure that the internet is not made a scapegoat for problems caused by the legal, economic, and political systems where it is used. The internet must remain a tool for all of us. That means protecting it as we would any precious resource.