In the late 1990s, I heard a speaker address something I hadn’t thought much about at the time—the opposite trajectories the Internet could take as it became central to our lives.
At the time, perhaps 15 percent of Irish people had access to the Internet. Irish organizations were almost exclusively online. Those of us who considered ourselves au fait with this dazzling virtual world scoffed at the lack of perception and imagination in business and government, and their static “brochure” websites.
Most of us have embraced the optimistic idealism of the early internet. We would have a marketplace of ideas! Services accessible to all! Always news! The right information is delivered to the right person at the right time! Mediation that benefits the public! Content will be king!
But the conversation warned of another direction, a smaller-scale, citizen-driven, hobbyist-dominated Internet that won’t provide a level playing field where small companies can compete with the biggest. Instead, the network can reinforce existing power differentials between corporations and governments.
It can become a nexus of data collection, an arena of information distortion and surveillance, a festering landscape of fake sites, deception and bad actors, from small-time fraudsters to nation-state hackers.
Like many, I thought, surely not. I believed that even if some of these dire possibilities were realized, they would not prevail. Within its co-developed, open structures and global base of enthusiastic human thinkers, creators, and users, the Internet certainly had the ability to manage flaws and deflect such threats.
[ Karlin Lillington: Beware your smart Christmas tech gifts in the season of surveillance ]
A quarter of a century later, my internet obsession is definitely curbing. The internet remains a miracle and has brought many positive things, but unfortunately, much of this negative arc has also happened and we are suffering the consequences.
Data breaches are commonplace, we are bombarded with misinformation, fraud and other misfortunes and exploits, and as we become packaged data to be bought and sold, our personal information is constantly, invisibly, digitally harvested by corporations.
A glimpse into 2023
And yet: as this year draws to a close, it feels like a throwback – the internet revolution has begun. The past year has brought a number of significant moves and revisions that will perhaps bring back a more promising internet.
On the corporate side, bad actions have had stronger consequences, with national regulators, including Ireland’s Data Protection Commission, handing out significant fines (increasing pressure from EU regulators stiffened Ireland’s spine).
Expansion of new EU legislation is on the way, with the Digital Market and Digital Services Acts, plus related pieces to add further muscle. Public attention is often focused on the US regulatory landscape, but the EU will remain the regulator of imports as multinational companies ignore its huge market.
However, in 2022, the Biden administration also began recalibrating the US regulatory system after years of stagnation under Trump. Important steps have been taken to resolve frozen negotiations towards an adequate data transmission system, with a new agreement in an area worth trillions in transatlantic trade. The US has also strengthened federal regulatory agencies related to technology and is preparing to introduce a long-needed federal data protection law.
[ Karlinn Lillington: Government inaction leaves our data retention laws in limbo ]
Damages and penalties
Also significant this year were multiple high compensation awards against talk show host Alex Jones for his lies about Sandy Hook, and fines and penalties awarded to participants in the January 6, 2020, riots on the US Capitol.
No, these penalties won’t stop the spread of misinformation and hate online, or related acts of abuse or violence, but they will make many reconsider whether their misrepresented “free speech” means they can go online without consequence. These are important decisions both symbolically and concretely.
And Elon Musk did us some favors. In the year of his disastrous Twitter bid, he single-handedly improved public awareness of the value of social media platforms – and how easily a person can be undermined, flattered and manipulated at the whim of a single monstrous individual.
In a matter of months, Musk has outdone Zuck, exposed the fragile myth of tech business “genius” and exposed the folly of a tech investor ecosystem that isn’t savvy enough to require basic due diligence. It’s a business and technology lesson for the ages, exposing hubris, misjudgment, mismanagement, ego, pettiness, overconfidence, a business black hole, and the need to rethink whether online public spaces should be privately owned globally.
The ongoing public migration to decentralized, non-commercial Mastodon heralds radically different possibilities for online communities.
Perhaps all this adds up to nothing. Moreover, regulation is complex and some wrong proposals can create new problems. But in retrospect, and even further back, it feels like a shift, a edifice swelling, a possible inflection point where the Internet moves toward the promise of earlier days.
At the very least, 2022 was a key year to ask questions, demand answers, and reclaim personal initiative; a year of increased awareness of the choices we make and the insistence that we will be given more choices and more control over our tech-saturated lives, or that we will create our own.