1st June 2018
By Tom Law

Internet Reform: Facebook and a Fight Behind Enemy Lines

Aidan White

This week a new book was published outlining arguments for abandoning social media. Jaron Lanier’s Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now is a powerful call from an internet pioneer who says we should reclaim the net for the sake of our sanity and our humanity.

His reflections are timely, and they come from a man who has seen the rise of Internet power from the inside. He warns about addiction and obsessive behaviour and asks us to think again about our future in the new landscape of information and communications.

The arguments for radical change are not new and they echo concerns expressed by the Ethical Journalism Network in recent years. We have been prominent among those highlighting the downside of cyberspace – the abusive behaviour of social media networks; the ruthless exploitation of our privacy and identity; and the flawed culture of communications it has shaped that makes many of us obsessive, selfish and intolerant of opinions we don’t like.

These arguments build on rising anger over the last few years over the explosion of online disinformation and the abuse of our privacy rights by social networks, not least Facebook and it’s shameful mishandling of the personal data of tens of millions of its users in the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

Governments around the world have joined free speech and privacy campaigners in putting social networks to the sword – demanding that they become more transparent; provide more protection for users; and, generally, do more to clean up the cyber cesspit they have helped to create over the past decade.

At parliamentary hearings this year in the US Congress and in Brussels, Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerburg has faced tough questioning over this crisis, although his answers have been predictably evasive and slippery.

But change is on the way.

The European Union is drafting laws that will set standards for transparency; codes of conduct for taking down abusive communications are already in place; and the threat to democracy posed by disinformation, formerly known as fake news, is forcing Internet giants to act quickly to eliminate malicious and targeted lies at election times. Google, for instance, recently banned all controversial advertising prior to the Irish referendum on abortion law reform.

Given this scale of crisis some people, like Lanier, think it’s a good moment to unsubscribe and to rebuild a digital and campaigning existence beyond Facebook and friends. Certainly, it can be done. I for one survived many years without Facebook and focused, instead, on my Twitter feed.

But the scale of this company with its more than two billion subscribers makes it out of the question for most people. When everyone you know, or want to know, appears to be comfortable in the same digital living room, why would you throw a tantrum and tell them to clear out?

Lanier makes a good case for doing just that. But he’s unlikely to win mass support. Over the years I, too, have argued that we must tame the social networks and complained that we have sacrificed too many of our personal liberties in exchange for free services. I’ve spoken to thousands of people, many of them young people and students of journalism, who seem convinced by arguments that the social networks have a lot to answer for, but they draw the line at leaving Facebook or other platforms.

Most people like the ease and comfort of this way of connecting with family and friends. The tedious business of inventing new ways to live without the social networks is not an attractive option and I tend to agree. After many years as a Facebook refusenik, I recently signed up again, largely to keep in touch with my own family network.

Resistance to quitting Facebook has become stronger as more people recognise something that is only now beginning to be fully understood by users and policymakers alike – the Internet’s digital space is a public space.

As such, it needs to be made safe, transparent and fully accessible. It requires sensible rules to protect those that need protection alongside tough regulation of internet companies to ensure their profiteering does not lead to abusive use of information technology.

Although the survivable digital society as envisaged by worldwide web inventor Tim Berners Lee is still under construction, the digital space already exists, even if it is largely in the hands of advertising tech companies which have designed it to fit with a business philosophy based on secrecy, self-regard and unscrupulous behaviour.

New rules should help us define the limits of tolerance and balance the rights of individuals and communities against the power of political and corporate players. Some changes – the hate speech and fake news take down rules imposed by Germany, for example – are worrying free speech advocates, but the process of change is inexorable. Much of the credit for this change in mind-sets, particularly over the past two years, must go to investigative journalists, thoughtful Internet pioneers like Lanier, and whistle-blowers inside the technology bubble who have helped expose why the Internet needs to become people-centred.

Even Facebook has admitted that new rules are needed. It has signed up to Europe’s new data privacy legislation and at the same time has introduced new controls on political advertising.

After years of gorging on the riches of unregulated digital markets, and providing cover for hate-speech, propaganda, and unscrupulous communications, Internet giants are now forced to rethink their strategies.

On my return to Facebook I see how users now have access to tools that allow them to limit advertising, control notifications, and manage who has access to their communications. It’s a degree of control that never existed previously and opens the door to more change.

But that will not come automatically. Whether companies like Facebook are too big and whether they need to be cut down to size in a sensible application of anti-trust rules, only time will tell, but the argument in favour of a public information space that enriches everyone and not just the Silicon Valley elite is being won. However, the fight is not over. The battle still needs to be fought on all fronts, including behind enemy lines.

Jaron Lanier’s Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now was published on 31 May by The Bodley Head at £9.99.