The stupidest article I ever wrote, in the 1990s, forecast that the internet would benefit just two groups of people: lawyers and photographers from the adult entertainment industry. I was wrong. I and millions of others have benefited vastly from this innovation. But I was right in one respect: that its blessings would be mixed.
Not a day passes without apocalyptic wails against the internet. It promotes paedophilia, grooming, bullying, harassment, trolling, humiliation, intrusion, false accusation and libel. It aids terrorism, cyberwarfare, political lying, fake news, state censorship, summary injustice. It enriches a tiny few, dodges taxes, respects no borders and forces millions out of work.
The internet companies, while pretending to be utilities not publishers, manipulate and censor news. They see humans as algorithm factories, bundled for maximum advertising revenue. The “global village” is no village at all, just trillions of zombie consumers hard-wired to a handset. Who on earth thought it a good idea?
There is no better illustration of this than the British government’s recent green paper on the danger to children and young people posed by social media. Ministers have just discovered classroom intimidation, online grooming and child sexual exploitation. Parents have been screaming for years about the pressures their offspring are subjected to. The rough and tumble of the traditional playground is being replaced by a murky universe of taunting, comparing, boasting and induced insecurity. Children are forced to judge themselves by how others see them. Menace lurks behind every click.
William Storr’s new book, Selfie, argues that social media renders us all, children included, lonelier and even more narcissistic. It has meant soaring rates of “self-harm, eating disorder, depression, anxiety and body dysmorphia “. Or, as Michael Harris puts it in his study of the new solitude, young people are “becoming socially obese, gorged on constant connection, but never properly nourished”.
Were the cause a rampaging virus, a climatic change or an invading army, there would be an outcry. Conferences would be summoned, the UN would meet and treaties be signed. But because the harm is contained in our most secret garden, mental health, it is treated as “the price we pay” for the internet’s wonders. Experts cannot grasp that the internet might have become not a boon but a curse.
The government’s proposals are beyond pathetic. Internet companies will be asked “to contribute voluntarily” (since they pay so little tax) for “measures to combat and raise awareness”. They will be asked to “target issues”, “boost efforts” and “report annually” on child abuse images. Everything will be voluntary, for fear of offending the bosses of Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. There will be a code of practice, but nothing to “restrict growth and innovation”. The cascade of buzzwords reads like a spoof of the BBC satire, W1A.
This is par for the course. Never has an industry attained such global dominance with so little effort at regulation. Search engines are like cars on motorways with no requirement for brakes, emission controls or seat belts.
The failure to regulate, let alone properly tax, these massive corporations is the grossest lapse of modern government. Their size and reach lets them disregard the harm they do and the users they short-change. We seem to think they must be OK because they wear T-shirts to work.
Historians of the internet, from Andrew Keen and Evgeny Morozov to Franklin Foer and Jamie Bartlett, have noted how easily the state has let firms off the hook. As the industry concentrated on monopolising vast gobs of advertising revenue, governments ignored the “dark web”, catering to tastes below the sexual, financial and even military radar. Where they should have been curbing mass intrusion on personal privacy, governments realised — as Edward Snowden revealed — that intrusion might serve their own ends. The state and mass data began the most unholy partnership in commercial history.
As a result, regulating the internet is today where medicine was in the days of leeching and bleeding. It seems beyond the wit of politicians to tax billions of dollars in revenue from the biggest businesses and richest individuals on Earth. The EU cannot impose adequate regulation on Google or extract sufficient taxes from Amazon or Apple. It seems desperate that even the British government can do no more than “raise awareness” over the grooming and exploitation that many parents now fear.
I assume that nations will one day revolt against the commercial banditry of the internet companies. Governments will find the guts to expel, jam or fine them when they misbehave. I assume that the curse of online anonymity will end, and users of the internet will have to register their identities. Search engines still pretend to be “platforms not publishers” — or, as others put it, sewers not sewage.
But just as the idea of Uber and Airbnb not being “real” service providers is crumbling, so is the idea of Google and Facebook as not “real” publishers, and thus not responsible for any damage done by their content. We await the first class action suit for a Facebook-induced suicide.
The worms are turning. Schools in Silicon Valley have taken to banning digital devices from their premises. Hi-tech parents know what harm too much screen time can do to their children. In addition, David Sax’s Revenge of Analog declares that the revolt of “real” is at hand. As we pass “peak stuff”, the post-digital economy will be about “play”, not objects.
Spending patterns are shifting to a craving for human congregation, contact and adventure. We don’t want to acquire things, we want experiences. One day, I assume, children and adults alike will cast aside their mobile phones, open their eyes and view reality afresh.
The internet is passing through the robber baron phase of capitalism, as manufacturers did in the 19th century. Then, as now, governments were too scared to regulate companies, which grew big and arrogant, and collapsed. I bet this happens to the internet.
Meanwhile, there is no avoiding the primary duty of the state: to regulate this industry to the hilt. The shocking report on child harm shows how fast this must be done.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Simon Jenkins is a senior Guardian columnist.