top of page

RECLAIMING THE INTERNET

Updated: Dec 12, 2023

Regulatory Solutions for a Dysfunctional Landscape


In an era where 5.4 billion individuals, accounting for 67% of the global population, are connected online, the internet has undeniably become the most influential tool in shaping human behavior.


The internet’s unparalleled global connectivity has profoundly accelerated innovation, access to ideas, and economic growth worldwide. However, this vast, instant information ecosystem also enables the viral spread of misinformation and incentives for platforms to encourage polarization with the use of engagement algorithms. Anonymity grants cover to hackers, criminals, and extremists.


I will explore the history of the internet, and its evolution and offer solutions the US can implement to repair the harmful elements of this indispensable technology.



Contents













 


 

THE EPIC RISE OF THE INTERNET

The internet began from humble beginnings as a 1969 US Defense Department project, ARPANET, linking universities for research. By 1983 it had evolved into the foundation of today's internet, adopting TCP/IP protocol and the Domain Name System for simplified addressing. Mosaic's graphical browser in 1993 unlocked the World Wide Web and affordable modems opened the floodgates to mass adoption.


The early 2000’s saw the development of broadband, social media, and mobile Internet. The first iPhone shipped in June of 2007 combining a phone, a media player, and an Internet communicator. Today, over half of all internet use flows through sleek, addictive mobile devices in people's pockets.


Companies like Google, Amazon, and Facebook redefined how we search, shop, and socialize. ARPANET spawned a real-time, globally connected nervous system.

 


LIBERTARIAN IDEALS – ANONYMITY       

Many pioneers who developed the internet were libertarians with a distrust of authority. They championed an open global network and anonymity believing it would expose the bad conduct of powerful institutions. They believed pressure from the internet community would move us to a more utopian ideal.


These idealists assumed that allowing anonymity would protect the truth from being suppressed by powerful interests. Their agenda was baked into the network protocol by obscuring the origin of network data. Combined with the introduction of a distributed DNS system, sender’s devices are hidden from detection.




ITS ABOUT THE MONEY HONEY

Advertising became the largest source of revenue and profits for internet companies. In 2022, the top ten internet firms amassed $1.8 trillion in annual revenues, with advertising accounting for 80%. By anonymously tapping into user data, companies have unlocked the power of precision marketing, catapulting their profits skyward. For instance, gross profit for Meta (formerly Facebook) soared to 81%.


Economics became a more powerful motive than ideology to disguise internet connections.



The digital economy's explosive growth is reshaping global economics. According to McKinsey Global Institute, this sector, valued at $11.5 trillion in 2020, is on a meteoric rise. By 2025, it's projected to reach a monumental $23 trillion, mirroring the entire GDP of the United States.



THE INTERNET AND THE LATEST INFORMATION GATEKEEPERS

For decades, media titans have sold access to the masses to advertisers. The late 1880s saw the rise of William Randolph Hearst’s and Joseph Pulitzer's newsprint empires, with newspaper chains like Gannett and Knight Ridder hitting their stride in the 1920s. Their recipe for success was engaging readers with sensational content.


In the realm of radio, a few key players held the reins. RCA launched NBC in 1926, followed by the birth of CBS in 1927. Post-antitrust shakeup in 1941, the Blue Network transformed into ABC. These powerhouses soared into the television era with staggering profits and continued their broadcast domination.


Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, TikTok and X (Twitter) are slowly replacing the broadcast titans. The use of internet platforms is nearly equal to traditional media for the average person in the US and exceeds traditional media with younger audiences.



INTERNET INFLUENCE DWARFS PAST MEDIA

Internet messaging is more powerful than traditional broadcast media for two key reasons. First, the internet advertisers pay-per-engagement, unlike broadcasters who charge based on audience size, regardless of ad viewership.


Secondly, internet ads are laser-focused, targeting specific individuals with high-value profiles, thanks to rich data from tech platforms. This enables advertisers to tailor content that resonates deeply with the consumer's interests.


This newfound power of influence isn't just for the elite; it's accessible to anyone with an internet connection or a modest advertising budget. Individual influencers can build an audience that surpasses past media empires.


Audience Size for Top Five Instagram Influencers


Cristiano Ronaldo -       486 mil

Kylie Jenner -                371 mil

Selena Gomez -             348 mil

Ariana Grande - 339 mil

Dwayne Johnson -       329 mil

Super Bowl 2023 -       115 mil

 

 

TECH GIANTS AVOID LAWS, REGULATIONS AND SOCIAL PRECEDENTS        

Tech giants quickly grew to dominate the internet. Much like journalists before them, tech platforms have often resorted to anonymous sources, unverified information, sensational headlines, and lurid stories to capture consumer time and attention. They were eager to protect their ability to deliver attention-grabbing content.


Thus, tech companies lobbied to end the restrictions of the existing laws and regulatory structures. Tech companies have successfully argued that historic laws were not written for their new technologies. They carved out a new legal landscape. Long-standing laws and norms, once erected to shield society from media misdeeds, were peeled away, under the guise of championing freedom of expression and innovation.


The tech industry's advocacy shaped the creation of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) of 1996. This legislation grants tech companies immunity from liability for user-posted content.


High levels of spending to lobby continue with internet companies laying out $234 million in 2022 according to Common Cause. This is more than any other industry except the pharmaceutical industry.



The enforcement of libel, slander, and defamation laws hit a roadblock online, as internet companies refuse to disclose the authors of harmful content. Websites and social media platforms, acting merely as channels for user information, were absolved of liability in these matters.


Tech giants, given the reins to self-regulate, have fallen short. Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg highlighted this in a 2022 Washington Post op-ed, admitting that the task of policing harmful content is too immense for companies alone and calling for fresh legislation.

 

 

TECH PLATFORMS USE ALGORITHMS TO ACTIVELY DIRECT CONTENT

Unencumbered by past constraints, the tech platforms use engagement seeking algorithms to serve content designed to motivate users to spend more time and attention on their platforms. Time spent by US adults on the internet is increasing, showing the success of engagement-based algorithms



Leveraging user data like search, browsing habits and purchase history, these algorithms serve content that echoes the sensationalism of 1800s yellow journalism, effectively gripping users' attention with provocative material.

 

 

ENCOURAGING FACTIONS AND DIVIDING COMMUNITIES

Algorithms that chase user engagement often feed into personal biases, creating echo chambers that sideline diverse perspectives and deepen existing viewpoints. As a result, global communities form, untethered from local norms or institutions like workplaces and churches. The more time spent online, the more these digital influences overshadow traditional ones.


This virtual landscape breeds increasingly polarized spaces, where even extremists find allies among the vast 5.4 billion internet users, unrestricted by geography. In their pursuit of engagement and profit, tech giants have inadvertently fostered a world of fragmented communities, conflict, and violence.



 

Anonymity on the internet emboldens users to engage in harmful activities, from child pornography and identity theft to extremism and the spread of dangerous falsehoods, creating a growing list of unchecked, destructive behaviors.



"The right to swing my fist ends where the other man's nose begins."


Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Supreme Court Justice               

 


TIME TO PUT THE HORSE BACK IN THE BARN

We must curb the shadowy impact of unchecked anonymity and the divisive algorithms used to push content to consumers. It's crucial to realign free speech with community values, employing time-tested methods.  We need to push the horse back in the barn.





1.      On Privacy and Accountability

The founding fathers of the United States got it right. The Fourth Amendment safeguards private property rights and an expectation of privacy while allowing search warrants to protect social order. These rights are not absolute, especially in public spaces.


User data should be protected under the Fourth Amendment. Access to data on user’s devices should be prohibited without a user’s clear consent or through a lawful search warrant. Encryption must allow lawful access. We need to balance privacy rights with responsible, lawful internet usage.


The internet, akin to a public highway, should have similar rules. Just as vehicles require registration, visible identification, and a licensed, responsible driver, internet use should require identifiable users and devices. Users must be held accountable for their online actions subject to our system of justice.

 

 

2.      Regulate Algorithms with Ways to Foster Diversity.

Freedom of speech, a cornerstone of the First Amendment, is safeguarded by a judiciary that both interprets legislation and honors our constitutional values. When private companies filter content, it clashes with these sacred principles. We must defend this freedom, even for unpopular opinions. Censorship is not the solution.


Tech giants, motivated by profit, engineer algorithms that breed division and discord. A striking example is Facebook's 2020 experiment: an algorithm promoting diverse viewpoints which enhanced user experiences but was abandoned when it dented profits.


Tech platform algorithms are the problem. We need to mandate algorithms that are designed to expose users to different viewpoints. Algorithms need to build digital bridges between differing views.



BRING BACK OLD COKE

In 1934, Congress created the FCC to oversee radio, telephone, and telegraph technologies, expanding its role post-World War II to shape and regulate television technology and the content and operations of television stations.


Now, it's time for a Communications Act of 2024 to update and replace Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, extending the FCC's mandate to include internet media. This act would bring ISPs (the modern 'information carriers') and tech platforms (today's 'television stations') under regulatory purview, adapting to the digital age.

 

1. On Privacy and Accountability    

Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are like the digital Department of Motor Vehicles, licensing access to the internet highway. The FCC should mandate that ISPs verify their user’s IDs.


ISPs already track customers and devices. Require responsibility for harms they facilitate, unless contractually transferred. This would be banking style “Know Your Customer” applied to the digital domain.


Users get a privacy-protecting license number displaying accountability status on sites. Law enforcement subpoenas would be needed for identity disclosure. ISPs outside the United States would have to comply with the “Digital DMV” rules.


Internet sites must show user’s authenticated or unverified status.

 

 

Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, George Orwell, and Marcus Garvey spoke at Speakers' Corner in Hyde Park, London, a historic site for political and social discourse. Anyone can go on any Sunday to listen to orations or to give one themselves.



2. On Algorithyms and Diverse Discourse      

The FCC should be given the power to regulate algorithms which feed content and recommendations. This would require tech platforms to be more transparent about how their algorithms work. This would include disclosing what factors are used to rank content and recommendations, as well as how the algorithms are designed to ensure diversity of viewpoints.


Tech platforms would be held accountable for the outcomes of their algorithms. They would have to track and report on how their algorithms are affecting users and to take steps to address harms that are found.

 


CONCLUSION

While regulators slowly awaken to these complex dangers, society is left struggling to balance openness with accountability, weighing individual rewards against societal risks. Ultimately, realizing the internet’s full potential requires proactive global cooperation—among companies, governments, experts, and citizens—to enhance transparency, security, and digital well-being. I believe my suggestions are a step in this direction. 



"For to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others."

 

Nelson Mandela

20 views0 comments

Σχόλια


bottom of page