The Internet, Warts and All, book review: How to regulate a messy system
In retrospect, 1996, when John Perry Barlow wrote his A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, was probably Peak Cyberlibertarian. The proximate cause of Barlow’s rant, which he imagined as a new-tech version of Thomas Paine’s revolutionary document, Common Sense, was the newly-passed Telecommunications Act. Lurking inside it was the Communications Decency Act, which, although it was soon struck down on First Amendment grounds, was the first government attempt to regulate speech on the internet. There have been many more since then, especially in the UK.
In The Internet, Warts and All: Free Speech, Privacy, and Truth, Paul Bernal, a lecturer at the University of East Anglia, argues that it’s essential to accept and understand the internet for what it is before we can make sensible laws about it. One of the things it’s not, any more, is ‘cyberspace’: the division between online and offline has been steadily melting away for the last 20 years. Positioned as a textbook in intellectual property and information law, The Internet, Warts and All is nonetheless highly readable — if not quite as entertaining as Bernal’s in-person talks on some of its extracts, such as online trolling and fake news.
A heterogeneous community
Bernal is unsparing in pointing out the idiocy of much of what gets said about the internet in public life. For example: “The internet needs to grow up,” said Matt Hancock, the UK’s ‘Minister for Digital’ in October 2017, going on to compare it to an energetic and challenging teenager. As Bernal says, this is absurd, partly because the internet is full of adults, even if they’re behaving badly, and even more because the internet is not a single homogeneous community with a single take on both behaviour and politics.
That is, Bernal writes, the same mistake the cyberlibertarians made, and he’s not wrong. Barlow certainly believed in 1996 that the internet was creating libertarians by the million — but by now, that’s clearly not true.
A homogeneous community and a child are only two of the things the internet is not. It’s also not a permanent archive, and it’s not neutral. However, Bernal writes, it is a mess, and this is something we need to accept before we can do anything about it. In the interests of that acceptance, Bernal debunks a number of myths. Security and privacy, he writes persuasively, are not opposing values that cannot co-exist; privacy is social, rather than solely individual; and the old distinctions between data and metadata no longer apply.
Bernal ends with ten guidelines that are so full of common sense you wonder why anyone contests them. They include: we need more evidence and testing before adopting policies; there are no magical solutions; beware making today’s powers — both the giant technology companies and governments — more powerful; listen to experts with knowledge. None of it, he concludes hopefully, is impossible.
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