Paraphrasing Arthur C Clarke, for something to qualify as “advanced technology” it should be “indistinguishable from magic”.
When it first came out the internet was certainly that. How it did what it did was incomprehensible to anyone outside the Magic Circle and even to some within it.
Amazing stuff that was never possible before, could now be done from the comfort of your own home, rapidly and without having to hand over any cash to anyone. In fact to begin with (but not for very long) it was impossible to pay for anything online anyway. This was another hallmark of its revolutionary, counter-cultural, disruptive nature!
To add to the enigma, all the people who seemed to have put it together were young, wore T-shirts and jeans, lived in California, and were super-smart, typically having attended Ivy League Universities. What could possibly go wrong?
The internet and the businesses making it happen managed to position themselves in the minds of journalists, the body politic and the public somewhere between Mother Theresa and Albert Schweitzer with a touch of Einstein and lots of glamour. The new kids on the block were also the coolest kids on the block. Their private jets and luxury homes merely underlined that. Everybody wanted to be a Silicon Valley dude or to bask in their reflected glory. Not wanting to be thought a dinosaur, if you didn’t get it you kept schtum. It was a truly remarkable marketing achievement that paid off in spades.
Those days are long gone. Legislators, parents and children now feel much more self-confident and assertive, both in relation to the tech itself but also in their understanding of the core purposes of the outfits providing it. Hello surveillance capitalism.
The other day I heard someone on the Clapham Omnibus say
We should say ‘thank-you’ for the good bits of the internet. We want to hang on to them but the bad bits have become intolerable. Since ‘they’ show no sense of urgency in addressing the bad bits – as evidenced by the fact that nearly 30 years on ‘they’ haven’t – we are going to make ‘them’.
‘They’ and ‘them’ are in inverted commas for obvious reasons. The relevant actors are indeed a diverse group but, while everyone benefited from the rising tide of novelty and growth, the challenges of navigating the relatively calmer waters of mass market penetration appear not to have received the same or an equivalent level of attention, a level of attention they deserve. Why do I say that? Precisely because nearly 30 years on we are still debating them. Nobody believes the problems are insoluble so….
Hubris coming home to roost with the chickens
Among the liberal democracies it is hard to think of a single legislative body anywhere in the world that isn’t trying to rein in some or other part of Silicon Valley, very often specifically doing so with children as their primary focus. Everywhere tech is on the defensive. Self-regulation as the answer has self-immolated. In the EU part of the debate taking place is around whether tech companies should be allowed any scope at all to take voluntary measures to protect children. That would have been unimaginable only five years ago.
True enough we shouldn’t generalize and tar everybody with the same brush but it seems fairly clear some idiots are intent on fighting a rearguard action. They’ll try to brazen it out with court challenges, faux letter-writing campaigns and all the other tricks. Just look at what is happening in the USA.
Here is a headline from a recent edition of the Washington Post (3rd May)
“Big Tech-funded groups try to kill bills to protect children online”
Here are two additional links which illustrate the point further:
In this context, in the UK for example, the user advocacy provisions of the Online Safety Bill are therefore of vital importance. NGOs in general and child safety groups in particular are never going to be able to compete with the lobbying power and other resources of Big Tech, particularly when it comes to negotiating the final wording of the Codes of Practice that will be the living embodiment of the Bill’s key ambitions. The same is true in relation to keeping track of the effectiveness of the measures post-implementation. But we absolutely have to get a much more level playing field than exists at the moment. For that, NGOs and consumer advocacy groups need money and it must come from sources which do not compromise the integrity and independence of the recipients.