IF Internet — THEN Free
Evgeny Nedoborskiy, First Prize, Undergraduate Category, Essay Contest 2019
January 31, 2020
Evgeny Nedoborskiy is a fourth year student of international relations at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia. He is currently working on his bachelor’s thesis about the impacts of artificial intelligence on international relations. His other academic interests include Russian affairs, European affairs, and just war theory.
ESSAY TOPIC: Is there an ethical responsibility to regulate the Internet? If so, why and to what extent? If not, why not?
If the Internet as the technology has any value for us and we want to preserve its benefits for ourselves and society, then it is our ethical responsibility to oppose any extensive regulation of it.
No Internet actor, whether it is a single individual, multinational tech giant, state, or international body, should have the privilege of single-handedly controlling the Internet: determining its purpose, setting functioning standards and rules of use, directing its development, controlling the infrastructure, etc. The primary reason for this is that, by its design, the Internet is decentralized—and there are three important things about decentralization. First, it is the key characteristic that secures Internet's most important benefits that are most likely to be ethically desirable. Second, it is the main source of self-regulation. Third, it puts the aforementioned responsibility on every single Internet actor. So if the Internet is worth existing at all, then there is a necessity to oppose any unilateral strengthening of control of it.
The Internet's decentralization tends to loosen binding norms and obligations that exist between actors vertically and horizontally. Therefore, the chances of avoiding obligations and receiving no retaliation of any sort in response are lower outside of the Internet than inside of it. This semi-anarchical state, however, has some important and plausible effects humanity never experienced before. It almost indiscriminately provides its users with freedom of information. Owing to the Internet, anyone can access nearly any information with very little effort and price. Physical disabilities, poverty, and discrimination of any sort—nothing can stand in the way of accessing knowledge when you use the Internet. One can start with Wikipedia, which may rightly be called Diderot's Encyclopédie of the 21st century, or access Encyclopédie itself, or access a certain edition of a certain book without paying virtually anything. Not to mention numerous personal observations, opinions, and experiences are available all around the Internet from most popular social network to its "darkest" corners. No matter whether certain information or a piece of content is labeled as undesirable or access to it is restricted by any actor, it most certainly will be accessible freely somewhere on the Internet.
The freedom of information is tightly connected to the freedom of speech and the freedom of expression. The former empowers these latter, and all of them derive from decentralization. The Internet allowed people to manifest human creativity and imagination as never before and regardless of their background. It also gave them a unique opportunity to discuss and debate freely touching absolutely every possible topic. Thanks to decentralization, no authoritarianism, market interests, or personal arbitrariness can fully limit these freedoms which are likely to be considered as fundamental. If you are afraid of governmental intervention into the Internet, think of the Russian failed attempt to block Telegram Messenger or just google the ways of bypassing "The Great Chinese Firewall," which are numerous and surely known on the other side of this firewall. If you are afraid that you cannot pay for accessing academic articles necessary for developing your own research or project, use free repository of scientific articles Sci-Hub (despite copyright issues, everyone uses it). If you got banned on a certain website, you are still able to go to another. The list can go on and on.
Indeed, it is pointless to argue that decentralized model is perfect. Among its drawbacks are fake-news, hate-speech, piracy, Darknet black markets, and many other phenomena. However, it brings order to the Internet too. While the norms and obligation between actors are, indeed, loose, they remain at play. Corporations still follow the law, and black markets are afraid of it; pirates can be bound by ethics and may wish to pay for the pirated things they like; states still have to listen to the public opinion and respect Internet boundaries of other states, etc. This resembles the system of checks and balances. Interconnected and balanced, the actors still push their agenda, but they are limited in establishing it over the Internet because of the significance of other actors. Thus, the Internet does fall into neither the absolute anarchy, nor into the some form of the totalitarianism.
One becomes ethically responsible when he or she is able to act consciously to achieve an outcome that is more ethically desirable. Consequently, the responsibility for the Internet falls equally on the full vertical and horizontal range of Internet actors. Their interests evidently consist not only of material gains, but also of ethical considerations. They may easily come into conflict with the assumption about responsibility to oppose extensive regulation. The idea behind this assertion, however, is not to make everyone drop his or her personal views and moral codes, which may favor regulation over deregulation. It is rather a call for a more tolerant approach to the interests of others, which can be backed either by total moral relativism or, for instance, by Michael Walzer's Reiterative Universalism. Walzer applied his idea to nations and relations between them, however it might be fruitful to apply it to Internet actors (among which nations and nation-states are presented too). In short, whatever one's universal value claims are, he or she should acknowledge claims of others, at least because they are reiterations of one's own universal values even if minimal. Coming back to the Internet's case, one should not deny his or her own views on the Internet. He or she may even promote them on individual, organizational, state, or international levels. But for the sake of the functioning of the Internet, there is also a need to renounce attempts to put it under his or her exclusive real control, which imminently means refusing the principle of decentralization. Because if one wants the Internet to fully ensure the freedom of information, the Internet has to contain all possible information—and this may be hampered by underrepresentation of certain views, positions, or actors on the Internet.
There is no need to go far to see what an alternative to the Internet may look like: France had Minitel, which functioned from the 1980s until 2012, and North Korea has Kwangmyong, which is still online today. Both are very centralized and state-controlled. Are they that bad? Not really, but they are just different in their nature. As the result, they cannot go global. They do not give as much freedom of information as the Internet gives, they do not encourage creativity and debate as much as the Internet, and they are not as cost-effective. Yes, they are better than nothing, but it is apparent today that they are just mere shadows of what they could have become—the great invention, the Internet.
The invention we have to preserve.