A joint blog from John Carr and Dr. Mike Short
The dominant technology
The Internet has become the dominant technology of the 21st century. There are now over 3 billion users worldwide and a vast array of services. The huge expansion in the number of smartphones and other portable devices, set alongside the growth in the associated infrastructure to allow ubiquitous and continuous access, has made it very difficult to imagine a world where the Internet does not play an absolutely central role. No online information or ordering? No messaging, social media, photo sharing or remote banking? We all have a stake in ensuring the internet’s continuing success.
Yet there can be little doubt that because of a series of different types of problems, a great many governments and other social institutions are beginning to raise questions which are undermining the wider legitimacy of the Internet. They say it appears to be above and beyond the reach of the law or any kind of control and this is facilitating serious harms without there being any real or believable signs that there will be an end to it. To put that slightly differently: we may be reaching a point where people are beginning to wonder if the price we are paying for the internet as we now know it isn’t just a tad too high.
This could have far-reaching consequences. It will be hard for consumers, investors, parents, teachers and others to feel they can truly trust or get behind a medium that is being routinely trashed because of the way it seems to provide succour or comfort to terrorists or, for that matter, fraudsters, child sex abusers, hackers, copyright thieves or dark forces wishing to manipulate elections.
Marking your own homework?
The internet industry has not been able to come up with a convincing or reassuring counter or alternative narrative. Here is the first big problem. Hitherto companies have essentially been marking their own homework. Whatever they might say about how they plan to address any challenges it will be discounted or disregarded as self-serving propaganda or marketing which is unlikely to tell the whole story.
Hybrid institutions require hybrid solutions
Internet businesses self-evidently are privately owned entities yet they are performing public functions which can have very public consequences. Internet businesses have therefore become a new kind of hybrid institution. That has inescapable consequences which call out for hybrid solutions. Many businesses are born abroad and may, therefore, have different approaches or attitudes, but none should be above the law and the law should not be seen to be impotent or ineffective.
The absence of transparency, the absence of an independent and trusted voice, risks leaving policy makers to listen and respond to the beat of different drums whose ultimate success may depend on no more than how good they are at lobbying or orchestrating a media campaign. This must change.
Change starts here?
The UK is as good a place as any to map out or describe what that change might look like while recognising always that, ultimately, for any strategy to succeed it must receive substantial backing from and be adopted by a broad range of national governments and international institutions.
How might such a strategy emerge? Nine years ago Prime Minister Brown established the Byron Review to look at online child protection. David Anderson QC has looked at how terrorism is being dealt with. We have had a variety of welcome and highly focused studies, and there have been more industry roundtables and Select Committee Reports than you can shake a stick at.
What is needed is something altogether different, more securely based and properly resourced with acknowledged high-level experts drawn from Government, Opposition Parties, industry, academia and civil society circles, particularly from within the free speech and digital rights communities. A new institution but not necessarily a permanent one. Perhaps an Interim Commission with legal powers to require information from any interested party?
One of the matters the Interim Commission might look at urgently is how best to manage these issues in the longer term. Should some new, permanent body be established which either involved or took powers from Ofcom, the ASA and the ICO or would some other arrangement be likely to work better?
There is a sense that the current distribution and division of responsibilities for online affairs is sub-optimal and has grown up in a rather ad hoc fashion. It is time to take a fresh look and try to create a new institutional framework which enjoys widespread support.
This does not imply that everyone would necessarily have to agree with or sign up to any and every outcome of decisions made by such a new body but there needs to be a consensus about the reasonableness of the ways in which decisions are made.
Determine its own agenda
It would be wrong to try to require the sort of body we are suggesting to give priority to any particular issue. It would need to take a view on that itself, but a good way of getting started might be for them to look at some of the pressing matters facing law enforcement and their relationships with social media platforms. Therein may lie a microcosm of the bigger picture.
Perhaps, given the rapid pace of change and to emphasise the urgency of its mission, we should call the body we have in mind Internet Commission 2020. It would be a forum that can bring industrial and policing needs/ solutions to the table for discussion and resolution, and NOT presume new laws are needed. It should be pro safety and pro-innovation founded on cooperation for a better internet. But the pace of change requires us to get moving on this strategy immediately. The future starts tomorrow.