Let’s assume we are living in a liberal democracy where the Rule of Law is deeply entrenched. It’s part of the culture. The Government, law enforcement, the security services and other agencies of the state routinely operate within a framework of respect for human rights because human rights are embedded in our laws. Occasionally, if someone oversteps the mark, sooner or later it will be picked up and remedied.
Into this liberal democracy comes a new force. We now know it as the internet. Aspects of the original high-minded mission of the internet’s founders have persisted but a key part of the modern story is we have ended up with surveillance capitalism.
In pursuit of profit, Apps and programmes intentionally exploited ambiguities or gaps in the pre-existing body of laws, a great many of which were anyway developed long before cyberspace came along or could have been anticipated. Yes, the high-minded good bits are still there in the mix but there’s no avoiding the horrible bad stuff.
Is a course correction possible?
Can the legislature in my hypothetical liberal democracy now put together systems, based on a new or amended legal framework, which can manage and control what the great mass of people today acknowledge are the unacceptable dimensions of surveillance capitalism?
I believe so, and this is what the legislative measures currently before the UK Parliament and moving through the EU’s institutions are seeking to do, at least insofar as children are being harmed within and by the status quo.
Or let me put that slightly differently. It is highly problematic if we conclude we can’t put together systems which can manage or control tech in ways which better protect children while remaining consistent with liberal democratic values.
Must we beg?
We cannot have been brought to a point, or can we, where we, the people, are left as supplicants, having to beg or hope private bodies or private individuals, companies and geekdom in its many forms, will allow our Parliament to do what a majority of its members and the voters who put them there want?
But what about the illiberal states?
Some of the tools and methods which will need to be deployed in order to provide better protection for children unquestionably could be perverted or tweaked, used by malefactors for bad ends. That will not happen in a liberal democracy where the Rule of Law prevails. The law won’t allow it and we will have audit and transparency systems in place which will underpin those laws.
But in autocracies, the illiberal states where the Rule of Law does not prevail, we can have no such confidence. They could insist the same tools are used to maintain their unaccountable grip on power. Is that a good enough reason to say such tools should therefore not be used at all, anwhere by anyone? Even in a liberal democracy for good ends such as the protection of children?
I don’t think so.
Our children cannot be used as a battering ram in a struggle to liberate North Korea.
Apart from anything else, even if we eschewed tool x, they would develop their own tool y which did exactly the same thing. Pegasus software and its clones did not appear from nowhere. The knowledge about how to create digital tools of oppression is out there and cannot be reeled back in. There are plenty of people willing to build such tools in return for money or because their uniformed commanding officer instructed them.
Nevertheless, even if we live in what is currently a liberal democracy only a fool would ignore the possibility that this could change. The price of liberty most definitely is eternal vigilance. But when healthy scepticism translates into unyielding and permanent cynicism everything becomes paralysed. Cui bono? That’s a very good question.
Policy paralysis suits some interests very much. Until the cows come home they will speak about the importance of international this, about building a consensus before doing that, because meanwhile they can carry on as before. Getting richer. We are being played. But delay does not suit children’s interests. Absolutely not.
Yet here’s the thing about vigilance. Yes we all should be parsimonious when allowing the state to change the boundaries of our lives but only the state can exercise that function for us vis-a-vis the businesses or other interests which operate on or around the internet.
We the people don’t get a vote on how geekdom and tech companies behave or what they might take it into their heads to do next. The market will not necessarily produce the best result for our children or our society. Markets don’t make moral choices. They make profitable ones. At least that has been the case up to now. If it were otherwise this conversation would either not be happening or it would be a very different one. And that is precisely why our democratic processes have to prevail. Tech must be our servant. Never our arrogant, cold master.