Information Wars - how will society control the use of the internet in the future?

A war of words has begun between the Information Technology giants and governments. This is about to escalate, as governments, regulators and affected citizens threaten to take action beyond words.

Societies and governments across the world are rapidly waking up to the consequences of the Information Age. The internet revolution that has delivered so much opportunity in the form of connectivity, awareness, knowledge, prosperity and societal change to virtually every corner of the globe, is now recognised as a huge threat on a number of different levels. Whether it is how social media has been abused by foreign regimes to destabilise democracy through targeted and fake news, the amount of time that young children are ‘hooked’ on line, the lack of taxes being collected, or whether it is the issue of people’s data being either hacked, exploited, distorted or passed on, the message is clear - action is coming; however, no one seems to know quite what the action will be, and more importantly, what the consequences might be.

There are six fundamental problems at play here. Firstly, there is the sheer size, financial clout and power of the organisations is such that their influence on governments is considerable. Up until now, governments did not make demands on the internet giants. Their technology underpins the information economy and provides jobs, investment and infrastructure - hardly a vote winner if one was to limit its expansion. Secondly, the technology platform providers deliver a virtually free service to billions of citizens, who love them for it, and those same citizens are unlikely to want to pay for it directly because of the higher cost of regulation. Thirdly, regulation of the internet by government sounds a little bit like information censorship, something the West accuses undemocratic despots of. Fourthly, control of the flow of information across the internet may be more difficult than is presumed and the potential cost of the control may destroy the current business model of information services. Fifthly,  in this 21st Century Information Age the gig economy depends upon personal information being shared and marketed, be that on Facebook, Google, your fitness device, cookies on websites, or your shopping loyalty card. As stated, "Remember, if you don't pay for the app/service, then you are the product" - that's how it gets paid for. Six and lastly, no matter how they want to dress it up, these internet giants are here to make money and the only way to do that is to expand the exploitation of information through more users, more advertising and more services.

Notwithstanding these problems, the first salvos in this information war have already been fired by governments and individuals. In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica/Facebook scandal, the US Congress summoned Facebook’s CEO to testify (all be it with little success and much embarrassment at their IT knowledge). Jeremy Hunt, the UK’s Secretary of State for Health & Social Care has written to Facebook and Google demanding to know what they going to do about limiting the amount of time that children spend on their sites, threatening the organisations with tough legislation. And though a small but defiant act, the UK’s ‘Money Saving Expert’ Martin Lewis is suing Facebook for failure to take down fraudulent adverts that use his name (he cannot be alone). To a tech giant, these sorts of challenges would have been virtually ignored up until a few months ago, but now they are having to sit up and face the startling news that they may face huge legal challenges and considerable regulation from governments if they fail to act. All this may send share prices downwards and reduce their growth expectations. That’s not how their business model works.

Then, of course, there is the the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) legislation, that becomes law across the entire EU on 25th May 2018. In fact, it even goes further than Europe, as any personal data of anyone in the world that is controlled or processed in the EU, falls under the same rules, (hence stories now coming out how some of the US tech giants are moving non-EU personal data that currently resides in European data centres, out of the EU). That says a lot about what Facebook thinks of GDPR. Whilst this legislation predates the very current issues surrounding the sharing and exploitation of data from things like social media companies, it is nevertheless timely and important. There appears to be a large gap between the US and the EU over how personal data should be used. In the US, it is more a case that the processing and controlling of personal data is less of an issue and that the benefits to the economy, the innovation it drives and capability it gives to ordinary citizens is more important than the rights of individuals to control who has and what can be done with their data. It will be interesting to see how US legislators react to events going on in the testimonies in Congress; no doubt the tech company lobby groups will be hard at work. For the EU, GDPR is going to make innovation harder for the IT sector and it is going to make it more costly to do business - the benefits to be realised and intended are much longer term and are more about the health of society. The question is therefore, is Europe strong enough to hold onto its principles of the rights of individuals, or will it just have to accept that the free flow of personal data is the cost of maintaining a successful ‘gig economy’ in a globally competitive market? Last but not least, one wonders how aligned the UK will stay to the EU. Whilst it has already agreed to fully implement GDPR legislation and keep it in line with the EU, there might be temptations in the future to adopt a more US standard to personal data. After all, the UK will be keen to encourage investment.

For a final thought, it is worth considering another historical case from another industry. For many years the tobacco industry, and later the advertising industry, successfully prevented governments from placing tighter controls on the promotion of smoking, but eventually the evidence of the harm it was doing to society was so compelling that action had to be taken. The situation with the information technology industry feels similar.

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