Uncertain times ahead

This blog is really a continuation of my last one but written in the wake of the terrible events in Manchester and the further revelations about the scale and nature of the terrorist material made available through various online networks.

Before getting into this bear in mind, if it’s not too obvious, terrorist material and terrorist related activity are not the only types of online content and conduct that cause concern. In the debate that is bound to take place in the uncertain times ahead several agendas will be in play.

Now let’s imagine a great many governments around the world finally become convinced that, despite their very best, extremely expensive and completely sincere endeavours, it is, in fact, impossible for social media platforms and other types of online services to ensure they are not exploitable by seriously malevolent forces.

A view forms that, under prevailing conditions, internet companies will never be able to employ enough human moderators or develop sufficiently smart AI systems to ensure the level or nature of the criminality taking place via their services is negligible or manageable either by them or by law enforcement.

In other words a consensus develops that one part of the brave experiment that was the old internet has failed and it’s time to rethink. User-generated content would disappear.

Or rather it would be put into hibernation until new platforms emerged which (a) accepted they were publishers and therefore (b) would only allow content to appear on their public spaces when they were satisfied it did not break any laws or incite or facilitate the breaking of any laws and/or that the real world identities and contact details of the publishers had been reliably verified. Mere conduit status would be severely restricted although it need not disappear completely.

What might happen next? Can we picture the internet without user generated content? Such an internet would be very different from the old one – the one we know today – and be a very much poorer one. The transition would also be uneven and messy.

However,  if Amazon is still there along with Tesco online, Expedia, Ryanair, Trip Advisor, PayPal, eBay, Netflix, iTunes, Spotify, the British Museum, Google, Bing, and our favourite artists’ and sports teams’ websites were still up, if businesses could still communicate with each other and sell us stuff, the vast majority would probably find a way to rub along. Free speech would not have died but it would operate within quite different parameters.

What might prompt such a calamitous chain of events?  It’s not hard to come up with an answer to that question, even though we will all earnestly hope the day never arrives.


About John Carr

John Carr is one of the world's leading authorities on children's and young people's use of digital technologies. He is Senior Technical Adviser to Bangkok-based global NGO ECPAT International and is Secretary of the UK's Children's Charities' Coalition on Internet Safety. John is now or has formerly been an Adviser to the Council of Europe, the UN (ITU), the EU and UNICEF. John has advised many of the world's largest technology companies on online child safety. John's skill as a writer has also been widely recognised. http://johncarrcv.blogspot.com
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