Business Technology

Thursday 5 December 2019

Taming the beast: Can we fix the web?

The internet's officially broken but are the diverse plans to sort things out realistic? Here we cast a cold eye on what's doable, and what's not

Taking aim: comedian Sacha Baron Cohen this week accused Facebook, Google and Twitter of being facilitators of hate and propaganda
Taking aim: comedian Sacha Baron Cohen this week accused Facebook, Google and Twitter of being facilitators of hate and propaganda
US Senator Elizabeth Warren
Vow: Zuckerberg told staff he would bet that Facebook would win any legal challenge to break up the tech giant
Europe's all-powerful competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager
Fianna Fáil TD Anne Rabbitte. Photo by Gareth Chaney/Collins
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

The voices are getting louder and they're saying the same thing: the internet is broken. But can it be fixed?

And if so, where do we start? What exactly, for that matter, is it that we need to fix?

Last week, a number of Irish and international figures brought the issue up in stark terms. Unusually, they also offered solutions.

Tim Berners-Lee, the 'father of the web', launched a manifesto on how to straighten things out. Backed by dozens of the biggest internet entities and a few sovereign governments, he outlined a set of principles which, if followed even loosely, might temper some of the worst effects of the internet's takeover of culture, politics and the rest of society.

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US Senator Elizabeth Warren
US Senator Elizabeth Warren

But Berners-Lee was arguably overshadowed by the less delicate diagnosis of Sacha Baron Cohen. The creator of Borat and Ali G garnered worldwide headlines when he took direct aim at Facebook, Google and Twitter as facilitators of hate and propaganda, calling for direct intervention and specific reclassification of certain laws.

Back at home, Dáil politicians outlined proposals to limit adult content on prepaid phones last week, as well as tightening age restrictions to use the internet.

All of this comes as the EU and the US contemplate increasingly radical responses to the growing power of tech companies, from European calls to curb their ability to 'micro target' citizens, to US presidential candidates who promise to break the tech giants apart completely.

Whatever happens, it's clear that the world is uneasy with the way that the internet's biggest gatekeepers are running things.

Here, we look at who's trying to fix the internet and how they say they would so it.

1 Tim Berners-Lee: "go back to first ­principles"

Vow: Zuckerberg told staff he would bet that Facebook would win any legal challenge to break up the tech giant
Vow: Zuckerberg told staff he would bet that Facebook would win any legal challenge to break up the tech giant

Last week, the man credited with creating the modern internet 30 years ago launched a new 'Contract of the Web' with the backing of several European countries and many of the biggest internet platforms.

The 'contract' has nine principles, three each for companies, citizens and governments. In general, they say that all personal data should be accessible by the person attached to it, who should also be allowed to stop any processing of it at any point. That means an easy-to-use privacy dashboard provided by every major online platform.

The 'contract' also calls for web companies to be more "accountable", particularly "assessing and addressing risks created by their technologies, including risks associated with online content, such as misinformation and disinformation, behaviour, and personal well-being".

On the other hand, the 'contract' also requires companies to make sure the web is safely and affordable accessible to anyone who wants it, including minorities and those with disabilities.

But it's not just companies that have responsibilities. Berners-Lee shares responsibility with citizens who should "adopt best practices on civil discourse online and educate the next generation on these matters". They must also "commit to amplify the messages of systematically excluded groups and stand up for them when they are being targeted or abused".

Eighty organisations, including Facebook, Twitter and Google, together with the governments of France and Germany, have signed up to the adherence of the contract. "It's not that we need a 10-year plan for the web, we need to turn the web around now," Berners-Lee told The Guardian about the new manifesto.

"The forces taking the web in the wrong direction have always been very strong. Whether you're a company or a government, controlling the web is a way to make huge profits, or a way of ensuring you remain in power. The people are arguably the most important part of this, because it's only the people who will be motivated to hold the other two to account."

Could it work? To the cynic, this might all sound well-meaning and woolly, the kind of thing that Mark Zuckerberg would pledge to see through in his annual "what I'm going to do" New Year's Resolution post. Indeed, on first inspection, it looks like some of the web platforms signed up for it have a tenuous right to be associated with such principles. But Berners-Lee and his World Wide Web Foundation have been trying to build pan-societal agreement on this document for a year, with all the compromises that such a diplomatic endeavour entails.

And it's worth noting that this is a manifesto for Earth, not Ireland or the West. Berners-Lee is just as concerned about censorship in China and Iran as he is about online bullying or hate speech in Ireland or the US.

As for sanctions, the only real penalty that signed-up firms (or governments) who (in the opinion of Berners-Lee's foundation) are adjudged to fall short of the contract's terms, is to have their association withdrawn from it.

So whether or not the 'contract' proves to be the start of a new constitution for the web, its initial impact may only be a soft one: to nudge politicians, regulators and company bosses into a more civilised, accessible web rather than scream at them to amend a particular element of it, like Sacha Baron Cohen's approach.

2 Sacha Baron Cohen: reclassify social-­media platforms as traditional ­'publishers'

If Berners-Lee's progressive template for the internet was the result of months, or even years, of negotiation and bridge-building with 'stakeholders', a much more direct view of how to fix the internet made global headlines last week.

The comedian was the guest speaker at a conference held by the Anti-Defamation League conference, which focuses on curbing anti-Semitic speech. Baron Cohen had a diagnosis and a solution, and he didn't mince his words.

"It's time to finally call these companies what they really are - the largest publishers in history," he said of companies like Facebook and Twitter. "And here's an idea for them: abide by basic standards and practices just like newspapers, magazines and TV news do every day."

Baron Cohen's speech, which echoes arguments frequently made by some traditional media publishers and politicians, was focused on the problems of rising hate speech and their political effects.

He called out Facebook, Twitter and YouTube as "the greatest propaganda machine in history", associated with a rise in "murderous" attacks on religious and ethnic minorities.

"The algorithms these platforms depend on deliberately amplify the type of content that keeps users engaged, stories that appeal to our baser instincts and that trigger outrage and fear," he added. "It's why fake news outperforms real news, because studies show that lies spread faster than truth… If you pay them, Facebook will run any political ad you want, even if it's a lie. And they'll even help you micro-target those lies to their users for maximum effect. Under this twisted logic, if Facebook were around in the 1930s, it would have allowed Hitler to post 30-second ads on his 'solution' to the 'Jewish problem'."

For Baron Cohen, there is one fast-track to fix the internet: make company bosses much more directly liable.

"Maybe fines are not enough," he said. "Maybe it's time to tell Mark Zuckerberg and the CEOs of these companies, 'you already allowed one foreign power to interfere in our elections, you already facilitated one genocide in Myanmar, do it again and you go to jail'."

Could it work? Is this really a workable solution? Should internet companies be liable for anything a user writes or posts to another person, or a group of people through their platform?

To date, most legislatures have been cautious about accepting this general principle, partially because it potentially encompasses other service providers, such as mobile operators and data centres. (Should Vodafone or Eir be exempt from lies or hate speech communicated to large audiences through their digital and telephonic services?)

But Cohen's argument struck home because there is clearly a difference in scale and effect today than SMS, email or telephone conversations of the last 20 years. This has been acknowledged by companies like Facebook, which has had to introduce measures such as limiting the 'forward-on' group text capability of WhatsApp because it was central to mob lynchings in India.

Even still, not everyone was impressed by Baron Cohen's reasoning.

"As a rich celebrity who has no need for the free communication tools they provide, and who can thrive without relying on the promotional benefits that come with active use of the platforms, blasting Big Tech costs Cohen nothing," argued the noted US columnist Casey Newton in a thoughtful and balanced analysis of the speech.

"Few people would have ever even heard of Baron Cohen's speech had it not thrived on social media - first on Twitter, then on YouTube - where social media critiques, particularly of Facebook, have grown increasingly popular. In coming to bury the big platforms, Baron Cohen inadvertently proved their benefit: providing a wide lane for an outsider - in this case, a comedian with no previous experience as a tech pundit - to come in and start a worthwhile discussion."

3 US election candidates: break up ­Facebook and Google

What if the answer to today's tech woes isn't to try and make Facebook and Google more mindful, but simply to disband them?

That's the policy of one of the US Democratic Party's leading presidential election candidates, Elizabeth Warren.

"Today's big tech companies have too much power over our economy, our society and our democracy," she said.

Warren, consistently one of the three front runners for the Democratic nomination, proposes to break Facebook up into constituent parts along logical lines: WhatsApp, Instagram and Facebook. She also suggests doing this with Google, separating YouTube from its search engine.

Tech companies are taking the threat seriously. Last month, Mark Zuckerberg called Warren's proposal an "existential" threat.

"If she gets elected president," he told Facebook employees at a staff meeting, "then I would bet that we will have a legal challenge, and I would bet that we will win the legal challenge."

Could it work? While it's a popular rallying call for those who think the Silicon Valley giants have now become too big and too rich (companies like Apple, Google and Microsoft now sit on cash piles of over €100bn each and growing), breaking up may be very, very hard to do.

Whatever about Facebook and WhatsApp, how exactly do you separate Apple's iPhone from its iOS operating system or its music service? Or Microsoft Windows from Microsoft Office? Or Gmail from Google Photos?

It's worth noting that Margrethe Vestager, Europe's all-powerful competition commissioner who has inflicted more pain on big tech companies than anyone outside China, doesn't think that it would work.

"From a competitive point of view, it would have to be a situation where breaking up the company was the only solution to the danger the company provoked," she told me and a handful of other journalists at the Web Summit in Lisbon earlier this month when asked whether she would support the policy. "We don't have that kind of danger now. We don't have a problem that big that breaking up would be the solution."

And Vestager, not known for taking tech firms' side, cast a little shade on Warren's proposal.

"The people advocating it don't have a model as to how to do this," she said. "When you chop off one head, two or seven come up. The risk is that you don't solve a problem, you just create more problems. I'm more in the way of thinking that when you become that big, you get a special responsibility because you are de facto the rule setter in the market or sector."

4 Fianna Fáil: restrict prepaid phones from accessing adult content

On a more specific topic, last week, a private member's bill from Fianna Fáil TD Anne Rabbitte sought to force mobile networks to create a new opt-in system and verify a customer's age before allowing pornography to be viewed on a phone with a pay-as-you-go Sim card.

The thinking is that prepaid (or 'top-up') phones are often used by teenagers, who then might use them to look up adult content, such as pornography. The Fianna Fáil private bill also touts age limits on phones at the point of sale, as well as making access to adult content an obligatory 'opt-out' feature with general internet providers operating in Ireland.

Could it work? While this is likely to be a popular proposal among some parents groups, age-verification measures have struggled to pass viability tests in the last two years. In particular, the UK's so-called 'porn pass' law, where adult content would no longer be available unless you uploaded or presented a document like a passport, driving licence or credit card, was abandoned as unworkable by the Conservative government, even though many of its ministers, supporters and sympathetic tabloid editors, were heavily in favour of it.

There are also some security concerns about requiring adults to upload their passports or driving licence details to third-party websites. However, the only way to test the private member's bill is to see whether it will advance through the Dáil.

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