Thursday 25 April 2019

The face of a troll - another sign Leo is wrong about regulation

It hasn't been a good week for the internet, social media, or smartphones. And our hands-off approach is madness, writes Brendan O'Connor

Sad case: Stephen French pleaded guilty to threatening to kill then senator Lorraine Higgins Picture: Gerry Mooney
Sad case: Stephen French pleaded guilty to threatening to kill then senator Lorraine Higgins Picture: Gerry Mooney
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

Leo Varadkar says he is nervous of governments trying to regulate the internet. He feels it might involve restrictions on freedom of speech. And he's probably right, isn't he? Because it's all going so well, isn't it?

The courts, we saw last week, seem to feel differently about interfering with the internet. Indeed it looks as if the Northern Irish courts may be world leaders in making Facebook responsible for the material it publishes on its site. Last week, in a historic first, the company settled a legal action with a 14-year-old who claimed a naked photo blackmailed out of her was then put on Facebook "shame" pages in an act of revenge. Which might cause you to ask what are shame pages and why are they allowed to exist.

Not that Facebook would accept responsibility for "shame pages". Indeed they tried to prevent the girl's legal action, for what her lawyers said was child abuse, because Facebook, as you know, is not a publisher, and therefore is not responsible for the content it publishes. While Facebook claims to be working harder to monitor unacceptable and dangerous content, it still maintains that it is primarily everyone else's responsibility to point out inappropriate content. There seems to be a feeling that this case brings us a step closer to Facebook taking responsibility for the content it makes its billions from, one step closer to being a publisher.

While Leo Varadkar might be reluctant to try to regulate the online sphere and curtail anyone's freedom of speech, perhaps if Facebook was forced to accept it is a publisher, and an incredibly powerful one at that, then he would feel better about regulating it. After all, we have fairly strict regulation in this country of anything published in newspapers, and TV and radio, which haven't a fraction of the power or reach of social media giants. We have libel laws that are almost draconian, where the responsibility is totally on the publisher to stand over anything anyone voices on its pages or websites or airwaves. Indeed, that's part of the reason it's so damn expensive to be in old media rather than having the licence to print money that the Facebooks of the world have.

No wonder they're making billions, when they take all the profits but incur none of the costs normally associated with publishing.

In the Republic last week a face was put to internet trolls when 28-year-old Stephen French was given a suspended sentence after he pleaded guilty to threatening to kill then senator Lorraine Higgins.

French exercised his free speech online to send messages to Ms Higgins saying that he would fill her rat's mouth with lead, blow her big f***ing Jew nose right off, and put bullets up her f***ing a*** and watch her bleed like a river.

There was something tragic about the pictures of French, and we heard from his solicitor of "very deep, underlying and disquieting issues in relation to his mental health". The impression left by the case was of a woman terrified, yes, but also of what tragic cases internet trolls often are.

While you can't blame the internet for hate or mental illness, there was something very powerful and disquieting about the case, and it did seem that the sense of the normal rules not applying on the internet somehow enabled someone like Stephen French to think it was OK to do what he did.

It was hard to avoid the dysfunction of the internet last week. Even the small handful of people who have become the richest people in the world by selling ourselves back to us are getting nervous at this point. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, the 33-year-old who is possibly the most powerful man in the world, is clearly freaking out after his awful 2017 and is working to make Facebook a nicer place that is more about connecting with your friends.

Last week he promised "more meaningful social interaction" on Facebook and said he wants to make the network "good for people". Because he cares.

And also perhaps because former associates keep coming out of the woodwork to talk about how Facebook was deliberately built to be addictive, and, how, in the words of Zuckerberg's former mentor Roger McNamee last week, it "warps minds".

Major investors in Apple, namely the California State Teachers' Retirement System and Jana Partners LLC, are clearly panicking too, and last week wrote an open letter to Apple demanding that the company "offer parents more choices and tools to help them ensure that young consumers are using your products in an optimal manner". You could view this as the investors looking at new revenue streams and opportunities, but you'd have to say the letter was not a great ad for smartphones.

It cited research that linked smartphone use to depression, to risk factors for suicide, to social and emotional challenges, to negative distraction in classrooms, and to sleep deprivation. It pointed out that a majority of American parents are worried about the influence of social media on their children's physical and mental health, and that half of all US teens who have phones say they are addicted to them. And this, remember, is from the people who part-own the company that makes the phones.

So death threats, the shaming of 14-year-old girls with naked pictures, the risk of suicide, depression, social and emotional problems and our minds being warped. Last week presented a pretty toxic picture of smartphones, social media and the internet. And that was before you looked at new research in Ireland that showed the alarming number of kids who send naked photos to each other and communicate with strangers.

Of course we need to be careful at times like this that we aren't like parents in the 1950s or 1960s, who thought rock and roll, or giving crossbar rides home from dance halls on bikes, were going to corrupt the youth of the nation.

One of the things you learn as you get older is that you have to step back and let younger people recreate the world they are inheriting. We have to be gracious about new realities, we have to engage with them and we have to try to either shut up about our disapproval or else offer constructive criticism. No one wants to become one of those old grumps who goes around moaning that the young people now are so depraved/narcissistic/lazy, forgetting how we were when we were young. But we need to offer leadership too.

You'd have to think that people will look back in amazement at this time - a time when we allowed a small handful of monopolies to virtually run the world, to control how we communicated with each other, to control what information was pushed on people and what was suppressed, to deliberately create an addictive alternative to the real world, an alternative that damages physical and emotional health.

And you'd have to think that people in the near future, perhaps our own kids as they grow up, will be stunned that we were reluctant to regulate these companies - companies whose product was the very stuff of human existence, whose product was how we live our lives, whose product was our values, our very selves.

Social media and smartphones are not going to destroy the younger generation. In many ways young people now are more empathic, more caring, and have a more global world view than their parents did. And technology has changed the world in so many wonderful ways. It's hard to imagine a life without mobile phones or social media or the internet now.

But to be reluctant to regulate these powerful tools, and to give untrammelled power to a small number of mere mortals and the largely amoral tools they created, to have allowed a whole generation to be their guinea pigs, will be seen some day very soon as madness.

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss