Do social networking sites support democracy and the Open Society? – revisited

I was reminded of a post that I wrote for Lib Dem Voice 12 years ago entitled “Do social networking sites support democracy and the Open Society?“, and thought it was worth revisiting in the light of current concerns about Facebook and others. I wrote then:

The obvious answer is, yes. But do they?

Let’s track this idea back.

In 1979 Christopher Evans published “The Mighty Micro”. His bold and prophetic book looked at the impact of the microchip on society over the next 10-15 years.

In the same year, 1979, I wrote my first computer program on a teletype terminal and stored it on paper tape. Some desk top computers had been built, but they were very uncommon.

The chapter that really inspired me when I first read it was the one on Political and Social Issues. He predicted that the 1980s and 1990s would be dominated by “virtually infinite data transmission”

This kind of development will encourage lateral communication – the spread of information from human being to human being across the base of the social pyramid. Characteristically this favours the kind of open society … the opposite effect on autocracies who like to make sure that all information is handled very firmly downwards.

“The decline of communism is one possibility”, he added.

He predicted that viewers would be able to watch a debate on a political issue on television programme and then vote on it, though maybe he wasn’t thinking in terms of voting Lembit Öpik off I’m a Celebrity.

All this alerted me back then to the essentially subversive nature of Internet. It cannot be controlled, any more than human speech can be controlled. It allows peer to peer communication. It lies beneath the radar.

An open Internet is essential to maintain democracy in an open society. At least, that was the vision of the early pioneers of the academic uses of the Internet.

And it was Tim Berners-Lee’s vision too, when, in 1990, he made the Internet accessible to everyone through the World Wide Web.

By 1990 PCs were ubiquitous, mobile phones were being used by smart young business types, and I found myself developing expert systems using the glorious user interface on an Apple Mac.

Last week, Tim Berners-Lee published an essay in Scientific American to mark the 20th anniversary of his invention of the Web. It was entitled “Long Live the Web: A Call for Continued Open Standards and Neutrality”

He writes:

The Web evolved into a powerful, ubiquitous tool because it was built on egalitarian principles and because thousands of individuals, universities and companies have worked, both independently and together as part of the World Wide Web Consortium, to expand its capabilities based on those principles.

He then goes on to examine some of the ways in which the principles of universality and net neutrality are being threatened.

Universality is defined thus: “when you make a link, you can link to anything”. You can put anything on the Web, any type of data, any content, any language, and you can access anything on the Web.

Universality is possible because of the open standards that Tim Berners-Lee invented. The first of these is the Universal Resource Identifier (now more usually referred to as URL – locator). The other standards are http as a method of transferring data, and html as the code for web pages.

He is worried that universality is being undermined by a number of sites that do not use the Web’s open standards.

He points out that social networking sites capture your data and “reuse the information to provide value-added service – but only within their sites”. “Each site is a silo” he says ”walled off from the others.” That happens because each piece of information lacks a URL.

The more this kind of architecture gains widespread use, the more the Web becomes fragmented, and the less we enjoy a single, universal information space.

The other principle he writes about is net neutrality, which is fundamental to the survival of the Web. This is a policy issue Liberal Democrats must consider.

Net neutrality is the idea that all Internet traffic should be treated equally. It could be violated if, for example, an ISP made it easier for you to connect to some websites rather than others, or to download some materials more quickly than others.

A recent threat has come from Google and Verizon, who have suggested that net neutrality should not apply to mobile phone–based connections. As Berners-Lee points out, many people in rural areas across the world, especially in developing nations, only have access to the Internet through mobile phones.

He says:

A neutral communications medium is the basis of a fair, competitive market economy, of democracy, and of science. Debate has risen again in the past year about whether government legislation is needed to protect net neutrality. It is. Although the Internet and Web generally thrive on lack of regulation, some basic values have to be legally preserved.

I’ll end with Tim Berners-Lee’s own words:

“Why should you care? Because the Web is yours. The Web is also vital to democracy, a communications channel that makes possible a continuous worldwide conversation. The Web is now more critical to free speech than any other medium. It brings principles established in the U.S. Constitution, the British Magna Carta and other important documents into the network age: freedom from being snooped on, filtered, censored and disconnected.”

 

* Mary Reid is a contributing editor on Lib Dem Voice. She was a councillor in Kingston upon Thames, where she is still very active with the local party, and is the Hon President of Kingston Lib Dems.

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One Comment

  • Like many other technologies, from nuclear to AI, the internet is a tool or capability which can be used for good or evil. Social networking is no different.
    At its simplest level, the networking is via emails, texting, zoom, WhatsApp and similar communication services. As we move on to platforms with more added value, they are no longer free. There is a price to pay, either a subscription or more usually the less obvious one of privacy. The platform operators know everything about your on-line existence. Most of them are in advertising, selling your personal information to potential vendors, or selling advertising space that you will see, or which receive massive traffic.
    The high traffic is delivered by algorithms that make the users effectively addicted to the site. They do this by bombarding the user with reinforcing messaging that amplifies the user’s beliefs. The more emotion injected, the better. The most effective emotion found so far is outrage. Platforms use outrage, paranoia, desperation and other extreme emotions to create the addiction of vulnerable people to ensure high click rates. High click rates command more revenue from advertising.
    The platform operators are now being challenged on the ethics of their business models. As an observer, it seems obvious to me that informed activists, whether political, medical, environmental or whatever, are using these platforms and their algorithm driven characteristics to promote group think, misinformation and mass delusion on a number of topical issues.
    To put this another way, Zuckerberg has found a mass manipulation tool to maximise advertising revenue. Others have realised that his platform can be used to manipulate the masses in other causes. Governments have just realised the Zuckerbergs of this world could influence elections.
    Just for the record, I decided many years ago that simple means of communication met my needs. I decided not to allow tech giants to have the ability to recognise my relatives from their photographs because of my desire for free software. I don’t regret it. But I have an open mind and would be interested in any reader’s claim that giving away all personal information is justified by the social media benefits.

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