Internet Regulation: The Responsibility of the People

Justin Oh, Second Prize, High School Category, Essay Contest 2019

January 31, 2020

Likes. CREDIT: Pixabay (CC).

ESSAY TOPIC: Is there an ethical responsibility to regulate the Internet? If so, why and to what extent? If not, why not?

Last summer, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) fined Facebook 5 billion dollars for violating the privacy rights of their users. Many argue, however, that users of Facebook have little to expect when it comes to privacy. To an extent, that is true. By putting their personal information online, people allowed their data to be harvested by companies through the use of internet cookies and IP tracking. As users continue to share more and more of their lives online, the expectation of privacy will continue to diminish. The Facebook case is simply an indicator of a wider issue that has arisen in this new internet age.

It is not only companies or friends that see the information we post, but data breaches have exposed financial information of users, and governments have used their power to monitor users' online activities. In an age when it seems like everything is shared online, it is more necessary than ever for people and governments alike to determine their responsibilities, to take control of the direction of the internet.

Governments, in particular, have a difficult road ahead as they determine how much of their citizens' internet lives they wish to monitor and regulate. Their choices will determine the types of regulations, whether it be censorship of information or media, tracking what websites or news users share, or even connecting their usage to their specific location. Some governments around the world have already taken such steps, justifying these actions by saying is it essential for the safety of their citizenry. However, many internet users question whether the government has their best interests at heart. Rather, they believe that the government is trying to expand control over their citizens. In many cases, this is true. Therefore, it is the opinion of this writer that allowing governments to regulate, monitor, and control their citizens' internet activities is too much power, but rather the people should take steps to monitor themselves.

The past few years have seen a dramatic increase in the amount of internet "trolling," which refers to users who act in bad faith in their online interactions, relying on the anonymous nature of the internet to protect them. They might lie about who they are, try to upset others, or share false information often referred to as "fake news." Though this might seem harmless by itself, in large doses it can have an impact on world events. For instance, according to The Telegraph, during the 2016 British Referendum on their European Union membership, Russian trolls sought to influence voters. On the day of the election, they sent millions of tweets and online messages supporting the leave campaign. Russian trolls were also found to be active during the 2016 American Presidential Election. Posing as American citizens, they set up spam accounts that posted news stories, many of which were false, in order to sway voter opinion.

Though it is difficult to estimate the effect these accounts had on the outcomes of the elections, the accounts earned many followers and millions of retweets in which others shared the false information. This rise in "fake news" and "trolling" has led many in the government to consider legislation that would track internet users' activities, so they might better combat these abuses.

Some countries have already taken steps to clamp down on such abuses. South Korea, for instance, has for years used an internet authentication process that ties a person's internet profile to a phone number and real name. This past year, Australia enacted legislation in response to the Christchurch massacre in New Zealand. The legislation gives them the authority to remove content they deem too violent or offensive from media or social websites. Other countries like the United Kingdom have enacted similar laws to mixed reactions.

While the countries listed above might have their citizens' best interests at heart, one need look no further than China to see how such controls might be abused by governments.

For years, China has heavily regulated and censored the internet that Chinese citizens experience, often referred to as "The Great Firewall of China." For an internet company to become available in China, they must first tailor their website so it does not conflict with Chinese interests. For instance, Google, one of the largest companies in the world, famously scrubbed internet searches of references to any brutality or wrongdoing by the Chinese government before they were allowed to operate in China. In addition to censoring the type of media available, China has also taken steps to monitor its citizens' actions online. To obtain internet, users must register their names and phone numbers. In December, they plan to roll-out a new system that requires users to register their faces to get service. While these regulations and censorship have been criticized in the past, the scrutiny has increased in recent months due to the protests and subsequent crackdown in Hong Kong. There, the Chinese government has used its internet regulation to track protestors and block access to helpful internet applications. Apple, for instance, has removed an application used by protestors to track police movements from their internet store. China has also blocked the use of privacy protection programs, called VPNs, so users cannot hide their internet activities. Clearly, citizens cannot always rely on their governments to regulate the internet in their best interests.

Ultimate responsibility lies where it always has, with the people. Governments might have to answer to people, but they move slow or are heavy-handed in their approach. Citizens must take control of regulating the internet. In many instances, users already have through the use of fact-checking, and economic pressures. The rise of "trolling" and "fake news" has encouraged the growth of internet fact-checking sites that provide information on the truthfulness of news stories, posts made by public figures, and even speeches given in real-time. This allows users to sift through and separate the fake news from the real. Users also have economic power, when it comes to the internet. Companies like Twitter, have recently bowed to pressure by users, monitoring their service more closely for bots and troll accounts. Already, they have suspended millions of accounts they have found guilty of spreading false or harmful information. These actions have come about because of user complaints.

The internet, more than anything, brings people together. In its short history, it has already become the greatest source of information and sharing the world has ever known, and it has become this because of the creativity, ingenuity, and contributions of regular people. As the internet was created by the people for the people, should it not also be controlled by the people? Governments may have their role to play, but it needs to be at the behest of their citizens, not the other way around.

Before, I mentioned that the FTC fined Facebook 5 billion dollars. How much does that concern its CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who is worth over 70 billion dollars? Probably not much.

However, at the same time, Facebook lost over 15 million subscribers, a substantial loss in an industry where growth is everything. What concerns Facebook more, the power of governments to levy fines, or the power of their users to leave, thereby making the platform obsolete? As always, the power belongs to the people.

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