What do Internet users want?
First, they want meaningful access. They want usability. They want not to be scammed, manipulated, lied to, exploited, or cheated.
It’s unlikely that any of the ongoing debates in either the US or UK will deliver any of those.
First and foremost, this week concluded two frustrating years in which the US Senate failed to confirm the appointment of Public Knowledge co-founder and EFF board member Gigi Sohn to the Federal Communications Commission. In her withdrawal statement, Sohn blamed a smear campaign by “legions of cable and media industry lobbyists, their bought-and-paid-for surrogates, and dark money political groups with bottomless pockets”.
Whether you agree or not, the result remains that for the last two years and for the foreseeable future the FCC will remain deadlocked and problems such as the US’s lack of competition and patchy broadband provision will remain unsolved.
Meanwhile, US politicians continue obsessing about whether and how to abort-retry-fail Section 230, that pesky 26-word law that relieves Internet hosts of liability for third-party content. This week it was the turn of the Senate Judiciary Committee. In its hearing, the Internet Society’s Andrew Sullivan stood out for trying to get across to lawmakers that S230 wasn’t – couldn’t have been – intended as protectionism for the technology giants because they did not exist when the law was passed. It’s fair to say that S230 helped allow the growth of *some* Internet companies – those that host user-generated content. That means all the social media sites as well as web boards and blogs and Google’s search engine and Amazon’s reviews, but neither Apple nor Netflix makes its living that way. Attacking the technology giants is a popular pasttime just now, but throwing out S230 without due attention to the unexpected collateral damage will just make them bigger.
Also on the US political mind is a proposed ban on TikTok. It’s hard to think of a move that would more quickly alienate young people. Plus, it fails to get at the root problem. If the fear is that TikTok gathers data on Americans and sends it home to China for use in designing manipulative programs…well, why single out TikTok when it lives in a forest of US companies doing the same kind of thing? As Karl Bode writes at TechDirt, if you really want to mitigate that threat, rein in the whole forest. Otherwise, if China really wants that data it can buy it on the open market.
Meanwhile, in the UK, as noted last week, opposition continues to increase to the clauses in the Online Safety bill proposing to undermine end-to-end encryption by requiring platforms to proactively scan private messages. This week, WhatsApp said it would withdraw its app from the UK rather than comply. However important the UK market is, it can’t possibly be big enough for Meta to risk fines of 4% of global revenues and criminal sanctions for executives. The really dumb thing is that everyone within the government uses WhatsApp because of its convenience and security, and we all know it. Or do they think they’ll have special access denied the rest of the population?
Also in the UK this week, the Data Protection and Digital Information bill returned to Parliament for its second reading. This is the UK’s post-Brexit attempt to “take control” by revising the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation; it was delayed during Liz Truss’s brief and destructive outing as prime minister. In its statement, the government talks about reducing the burdens on businesses without any apparent recognition that divergence from GDPR is risky for anyone trading internationally and complying with two regimes must inevitably be more expensive than complying with one.
The Open Rights Group and 25 other civil society organizations have written a letter (PDF) laying out their objections, noting that the proposed bill, in line with other recent legislation that weakens civil rights, weakens oversight and corporate accountability, lessens individuals’ rights, and weakens the independence of the Information Commissioner’s Office. “Co-designed with businesses from the start” is how the government describes the bill. But data protection law was not supposed to be designed for business – or, as Peter Geoghegan says at the London Review of Books, to aid SLAPP suits; it is supposed to protect our human rights in the face of state and corporate power. As the cryptography pioneer Whit Diffie said in 2019, “The problem isn’t privacy; it’s corporate malfeasance.”
The most depressing thing about all of these discussions is that the public interest is the loser in all of them. It makes no sense to focus on TikTok when US companies are just as aggressive in exploiting users’ data. It makes no sense to focus solely on the technology giants when the point of S230 was to protect small businesses, non-profits, and hobbyists. And it makes no sense to undermine the security afforded by end-to-end encryption when it’s essential for protecting the vulnerable people the Online Safety bill is supposed to help. In a survey, EDRi finds that compromising secure messaging is highly unpopular with young people, who clearly understand the risks to political activism and gender identity exploration.
One of the most disturbing aspects of our politics in this century so far is the widening gap between what people want, need, and know and the things politicians obsess about. We’re seeing this reflected in Internet policy, and it’s not helpful.
Illustrations: Andrew Sullivan, president of the Internet Society, testifying in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Follow on Twitter.