As 2021 comes to an end and masks and vaccines continue to be a highly polarising topic both online and offline, it is difficult not to wonder where 2022 will take us. Will conflicting opinions escalate to the point of making the Internet a resolutely hostile place to navigate? Is the Internet doomed to reflect our fears and anxieties? And what can policymakers and regulators do to make the Internet better?
Where did we go wrong?
Before the age of ‘likes’ and ‘hashtags’, many saw the Internet as a tool to elevate humanity, providing unfettered and unfiltered access to infinite knowledge. It was meant to eliminate ignorance, diminish fear, and unite communities.
Instead, much like Microsoft’s AI that became racist and sexist after spending a few hours on Twitter, human nature has turned it into a tool that entrenches people in their beliefs, convictions, prejudices, and certitudes just as easily as it can be used for good.
As the COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated, the Internet can be a hotspot of antagonistic communities that treat differences as an act of aggression. It now facilitates the spread of alarmist misinformation and partisan disinformation and makes space for bots, trolls, and professional Fake News creators to guide our moods and opinions. It monetises even the most intimate aspects of our lives.
As pessimistic and exaggerated as these observations may sound, serious research is being conducted around these phenomena. Four key explanations stand out:
- Content filter bubbles: A recent thought piece observed that the Internet is more fragmented than ever, the consequence of paywalls sorting information into silos and online communities growing isolated. All this is aggravated by hyper-personalised algorithms that prioritise content that affirms and confirms what is already believed to increase engagement.
- Powerful algorithms: Whistle-blowers from YouTube and Facebook have opened up the debate around the way content algorithms orient users towards topics that elicit a strong reaction. It will be interesting to see how tech companies and governments communicate on this issue in the future.
- Omniscient ads, cookies, bots, and spam: Advertising risks turning into surveillance capitalism. Few websites are usable without a series of apps and add-ons that limit the type of data advertisers can see or track. Despite privacy mechanisms such as GDPR, even the most basic online activity (checking a news article, buying a train ticket) produces more data than many users are aware.
- Main character syndrome: A decidedly post-modern and increasingly recognised condition where people imagine themselves as the lead in a fictional version of their life, where everyone else is merely an ‘extra’ underserving of attention or consideration. Unsurprisingly, such behaviours are more prominent on platforms that thrive on young users’ egotist and narcissist tendencies, but there is evidence that this is starting to permeate offline behaviours.
What can be done?
It seems the common issue in all these trends is that the unmoderated, unregulated, unfiltered nature of the Internet—precisely what made it so promising in the first place—has turned into something unrecognisable. How are governments reacting?
Some are choosing not to intervene allowing ‘the market’ to level its own imbalances, so to speak. The risk is that opinions will become more polarised and views more radical.
Others have decided to take control. In China, the government has adopted a paternalist stance, setting curfews, limits, and rules for what is appropriate online behaviour and usage. For some, this is no different than removing the temptation that can lead addicts to relapse. For others, this is a dystopian continuation of the already far-reaching controls of the state (the next stage of the Great Firewall).
Others still are leaning towards a regulation-based middle ground. In Europe, the Council of Europe’s Internet Governance Strategy recognises that governments have an important role to play in making the Internet an open, safe, and useful tool for all. The Internet’s cross-cutting nature makes it a fundamental input and driver for long-term economic dynamism. Whichever the approach, I predict five governance issues will rise to the top of policymakers’ and regulators’ agendas in 2022.
- Regulators will strengthen their digital literacy initiatives and safe Internet projects to avoid growing the ranks of the embittered. With an estimated 600,000 people going online for the first time each day, these new Internet users will undoubtedly tap into great opportunities but face falling prey to a range of risks.
- Governments will put the brakes on and set an example by dealing a blow to a major Internet company, perhaps even to an influential tech mogul. The result will change forever how we view the duties and responsibilities of technology companies.
- Artificial intelligence will be utilised and leveraged to better harness and ‘clean’ the Internet. AI algorithms are already used to detect copyright violations and to screen spam robocalls. Implementation of sophisticated AI systems will help rid us of many of the pain points that plague the online space.
- We will see the rise of alternative, citizen-driven, and sustainable platforms. With a growing push to make the internet free of charge and liberate it from the control of antiquated state apparatus and monopolistic tech giants. The advent of open-source and peer-to-peer blockchain networks will bring this vision closer to reality, though the road ahead will be a long one.
- Regulators and policymakers will step up and for the first time keep pace with the digital era. Government bodies will equip all levels of government with the ability to build regulatory foundations that are strong enough to protect consumers’ interests and citizens’ rights while being flexible enough to enable a self-sustaining, virtuous circle of investment and innovation.
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