Time to Question “The Internet of Hal”
The Facebook Scandal and the Dawn of Internet Skepticism
This year the web will reach a major milestone as more than half of the world’s population will be online. Worldwide web founder Tim Berners-Lee announced this on the web’s 29th birthday in March, while questioning “are we sure the rest of the world wants to connect to the web we have today?”
Such a statement would have been laughed at in the early days of the web when internet utopianism and its cousin internet exceptionalism reigned. The web was somehow not going to be polluted with the ails of the pre-millennial world and somehow was going to transform everything. To an extent, it was a ludicrous notion, but no less ludicrous than the notion that a bottle of Coca-Cola could bring world peace and harmony from a generation before.
The Transformative Web
And yet, the web has transformed everything in ways both good and bad that we never imagined. The web has grown from ten websites in 1992 to 1.7 billion in 2017 with vast libraries of knowledge that are readily at our fingertips. Through the internet, we have connected people from all continents and walks of life. We have seen the power of that connection in the U.S. with the internet mobilization against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in 2012 causing a near overnight collapse in support for the bill. Overseas we saw how a video of a Tunisian street vendor’s self-immolation that went viral would topple the nation’s dictator and spark Arab Spring in 2011.
Yes, even in these heady days, there were voices of warning. William Powers’ 2010 book, “Hamlet’s Blackberry,” warned of the dangers of “digital maximalism” and the letting our connected devices control us rather than vice versa. It was an important warning about maintaining our humanity and recognizing that any device that can be used for good can also be used for harm.
The very same tools that could provide the spark for Arab Spring could also fuel a lynch mob as we saw in 2014 when video gamers targeted a handful of women critics with threats of death and rape in what became known as Gamergate. Shockingly, the FBI never brought any charges even after some of those involved admitted to making the unlawful threats.
Soon we saw that the same worldwide web that gave us access to knowledge greater than the Library of Congress, also could deliver propaganda and hate on a scale Hitler or Stalin could never have imagined. Through data that we freely handed over to various platforms, propagandist could easily target their message based on complex psychographic profiles that would make Orwell’s head explode.
Even worse, a recent United Nations (UN) investigation into the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya in Burma, singled out the use of Facebook to foment hatred and violence against the Rohingya. The UN investigator, Yanghee Lee, recently explained, “I’m afraid that Facebook has now turned into a beast, and not what it originally intended.”
The “Internet of Hal”
This statement is the latest to confirm that the very platforms which we use to connect with the digital universe have, to some extent, turned against us like the spaceship computer Hal in “2001: A Space Odyssey”. In past few years, we have learned that Facebook conducted social experiments on its users, tracked their phone conversations and shared libraries upon libraries of data with companies like Cambridge Analytica to exploit.
Facebook, however, is not alone in embracing the “Internet of Hal”, Amnesty International recently launched a “Toxic Twitter” campaign citing the social media platform for violating international human rights law by doing little to protect women from threats of violence and abuse on its platform. Twitter and other platforms claim they are promoting free expression in their neutrality over harassing speech but, in reality, they are creating a “Lord of the Flies” ecosystem where the hecklers’ veto reigns supreme. Twitter’s own General Counsel acknowledged that “freedom of expression means little as our underlying philosophy if we continue to allow voices to be silenced because they are afraid to speak up.”
Dawn of Internet Skepticism
In this context, Berners-Lee startling question may be a turning point from the age of internet utopianism to internet skepticism. This is a time to rethink assumptions and ask some important questions. He believes that the web of a generation ago is “under threat”, as “[w]hat was once a rich selection of blogs and websites has been compressed under the powerful weight of a few dominant platforms,” leaving web users with fewer and fewer options. Where are the privacy-friendly alternatives to Facebook or the harassment-free alternatives to Twitter?
Let the Facebook scandal be a catalyst for asking these important questions and having a debate to address Berners-Lee call to “make the web work for people.” Let it also be a wakeup call for internet users to be more aware and be empowered to voice their concerns. As the Chinese proverb warns, “[i]f we do not change our direction, we are likely to end up where we are headed.”