Is regulation the only way to deal with digital disinformation?
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Is regulation the only way to deal with digital disinformation?

The late John Perry Barlow, whose Wikipedia entry describes him as an “American poet and essayist, a cattle rancher, and a cyberlibertarian political activist” was probably the first person to explicitly kick off discussions about internet regulation. In 1996’s A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, he opened: “Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.” Today, his lofty proclamation seems further from the truth than ever before.

Today, the extent to which liberty and freedom can be prioritised over other things – like safety, knowledge, honesty, legality, or happiness – is questionable. Of course, we all want to be free. But do we want other people to be equally free if what they use that freedom for is brainwashing our children into joining violent cults? Or underhandedly influencing democratic elections on a widespread scale? Or bullying vulnerable people to suicide? For a handful of committed libertarians, the answer to this question is always “yes”. But for most of us, it’s a more nuanced discussion.

The reason that questions over internet regulation have raised their heads recently is largely down to the internet’s phenomenal success. Today’s internet sees billions of people from all countries and cultures collide online, sharing videos and thoughts on multi-billion-dollar platforms. The same tech that can let you conference call a colleague on the other side of the world can equally be used to live-stream violent school massacres to social media sites packed with teenagers. These are dramatic changes. Consider, for example, that for the first time in history, more than half of the US population gets its news from online sources.

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Everyone knows that regulators control traditional media. If, for example, the United Kingdom is in the midst of an election, news broadcasters are required to be impartial in their reporting. Since this is not the case at other times, the difference is notable. There are clear rules in place for what news broadcasters can do, and when they can do it.

But who’s to say that an individual can’t spend £10 on a website domain, call it “The National Express” – or something similar – and write thousands of words of what is, effectively, nonsense? There’s no law against being deluded, as any history of conspiracy theorists will clearly show (some of these people, after all, believe we’re being run by giant shape shifting lizards from another planet). The problem with the online world is figuring out what’s what.

A lot of these “fake news” purveyors – whether simply misguided, like the anti-vaccination crowd, or legitimately bad actors, like Russian trolls trying to swing US elections – can be found alongside “real” mainstream media sites. They can be found in Google News, on Facebook and Twitter, and just “out there” on the internet. And why shouldn’t they be? What are the regulations to stop these people? There are none. Who is spearheading (and paying for) the circumvention of this misinformation? Private companies like Facebook and Google. It is simple impractical to assume these companies can come together to form their own set of regulations and apply them across the board. Deciding whether to allow live video on social media platforms is a big deal – cut it off and you deny families the chance to talk face to face over thousands of miles; leave it on, and you will never be able to stop atrocities being posted (no matter how well you police it).

In recent months, this is a position that Facebook has staked out, saying it wants to work towards a better internet, but can’t do it without the help of society at large. In a recent statement, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said: “I believe we need a more active role for governments and regulators. By updating the rules for the internet, we can preserve what’s best about it – the freedom for people to express themselves and for entrepreneurs to build new things – while also protecting society from broader harms.”

Dominion holds Facebook, Google, and other companies affected by the possible regulation of the internet, in its Global Trends Ecommerce Fund

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