Governments are rushing to regulate the internet. Users could end up paying the price

In early 1996, John Perry Barlow — founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and one-time member of the Grateful Dead — declared the internet to be independent of national governments.

“I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us,” he wrote. “You have no moral right to rule us nor do you possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear.”

Barlow, who died last year, was more prone to flowery prose than many of his contemporaries, but his declaration was reflective of a widespread belief that the internet was a thing apart, where traditional rules and regulations did not — and could not — apply.

For years, this libertarian thinking was the guiding philosophy of Silicon Valley as tech firms aggressively pushed back at any attempt to regulate them or control how people behaved online. Conveniently, this lack of regulation allowed them to build massive monopolies and make huge profits.

Today, Silicon Valley is facing the backlash. Amid widespread concerns over fake news, influence campaigns, cybersecurity and the sharing of violent and extremist content, more and more countries are pushing to rein in big tech.

Regulation overdrive

Last week, after just two days of deliberations — and over the protests of critical lawmakers, industry experts and rights groups — Australia introduced new legislation in response to New Zealand’s Christchurch massacre, much of which was streamed online. Under the laws, internet firms like Facebook and Google will be compelled to remove violent content or face massive fines and even prison time.

While Australia has a history of overreaching when it comes to internet regulation — a plan for a web blacklist was abandoned in 2010 amid widespread criticism — the country is by no means alone in the latest push for greater control.

On Monday, the UK government proposed sweeping new powers to tackle violent content, fake news and harmful material. Like Australia, these regulations would impose obligations on web companies, and give a newly constituted internet regulator the ability to issue fines and block sites.

“It’s clear to us that self-regulation among tech companies has not been sufficient and action in the form of regulation is now needed,” Jeremy Wright, the UK’s secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport, wrote in a piece for CNN Opinion. He promised to make tech firms responsible “for tackling harmful content and activity online.”

“(We) will make tech companies more responsible for the content they host and place tougher requirements on platforms to take robust action against terrorism and child sexual exploitation and abuse,” Wright added.

In the US, where tech firms have benefited most from decades of sympathetic legislation and constitutional protections for free speech, there are calls for similar action.

On Sunday, Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang proposed the creation of a news and information ombudsman “with the power to fine egregious corporate offenders.”

“We need a robust free press and exchange of information. But we should face the reality that fake news and misinformation spread via social media threatens to undermine our democracy and may make it impossible for citizens to make informed decisions on a shared set of facts,” Yang said in a statement. “This is particularly problematic given that foreign actors, particularly Russia, intend to do us harm and capitalize on our freedom of information. We need to start monitoring and punishing bad actors to give the determined journalists a chance to do their work.”

In Singapore, meanwhile, a new anti-fake news bill will make it illegal to spread “false statements of fact” where that information is “prejudicial” to Singapore’s security, public safety, “public tranquility,” or to the “friendly relations of Singapore with other countries,” among numerous other topics.

Free speech concerns

Few people would deny that there are major issues with the internet, and that government action is required to fix them.

“While the web has created opportunity, given marginalized groups a voice and made our daily lives easier, it has also created opportunity for scammers, given a voice to those who spread hatred and made all kinds of crime easier to commit,” Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, wrote last month on the technology’s 30th anniversary. Even Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has called for greater regulation.

But while many of the problems have come as a result of governments’ hands-off approach to big tech, many of the proposed — or in Australia’s case, enacted — laws actually give more power to companies to police content.

This could be seen as a “you broke it, you fix it,” approach, but the risk is that platforms, which are not subject to the same kinds of obligations to protect free speech or expression as governments, end up deleting anything politically sensitive.

Such is the case in China, where private tech firms carry out the majority of internet censorship. Because the law provides only vague guidelines on what needs to be controlled, while carrying big penalties for the failure to do so, companies typically err on the side of censorship — a situation that compounds the country’s already stringent controls on speech.

“Internet regulation needs a calm, evidence-based approach that safeguards freedom of expression rather than undermining it,” said Joy Hyvarinen, head of advocacy for the London-based Index on Censorship.

Index said that the proposed “duty of care” for internet companies under the British law could create a “strong incentive for online platforms to restrict and remove content.”

Already, users who find their content or pages removed from social media have limited ability to appeal. Activists, particularly on the political fringes, have expressed concern that this could lead to the increased marginalization of minority or dissident voices.

“Forcing companies to regulate content under threat of criminal liability is likely to lead to over-removal and censorship as the companies attempt their best to avoid jail time for their executives or hefty fines on their turnover,” internet freedom group Access Now said about the new Australian laws. “Also worryingly, the bill could encourage online companies to constantly surveil internet users by requiring proactive measures for general content monitoring, a measure that would be a blow to free speech and privacy online.”

The internet is not independent of national governments, a fact they have made abundantly clear in the decades since John Perry Barlow issued his declaration.

But nor is it free from the regulation and control of private companies. And as regulators all over the world attempt to fix the problems their own inaction helped create, the risk is that both their power and the power of big tech increases — at the expense of ordinary users.

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