The Thin Blue Line of Internet Policing

We sometimes forget in this always connected, always online world that the internet is only just over twenty years old.  It’s a relatively new technological and social construct and it’s one that has grown almost inconceivably quickly in that time.  We’ve never seen any form of communication blow up in such a way before.

Because of this, and the internet’s capacity to be incredibly malleable and allow you to do almost anything you want, it’s a force that has become very hard to police.  We all know that there are many nefarious uses of the internet and that it’s probably facilitated and grown illegal trades in traditional contraband: such as drugs, weapons, prostitution, illegal pornography etc. in a way that has damaged society to an extent.  Very few would be able to argue against that.  These things do have to be curbed.  The problem that governments and police services around the world face though are two-fold: that they aren’t in charge of the internet and that they risk stifling one of human-kind’s greatest creations if they are overzealous.  It’s a tricky business.

On one side of the argument are the governments.  They’re interested in maintaining their own laws in any domain, including online.  They want to keep their societies safe from perceived harm and make sure that they are caring for their citizens.  On the other side are those that created and still create the internet, those that post content and index it – who are generally liberal in mind set and want the internet to be free from government intervention and somewhere that is as open and transparent as can be, with warts and all on show for those who want to see them.

Striking a balance between the two is nearly impossible.  Although governments have the jurisdiction to control the businesses and people in their country that access and post on the internet, they don’t have any formal control over the internet itself.  The internet is a completely anarchic system, with no formal rulers, no governing bodies and no overall control over it.  More authoritarian countries such as China, Iran, North Korea and even Turkey have all tried to block internet access to certain websites or certain functions of the internet and almost without fail someone within their borders will find a way around the state’s counter-measures.  Try as they might, states will not stop people from accessing the internet and the sites that they want to.  Governments want control, so that they are able to shape what people see about their society and about themselves but should not be allowed to in the minds of those libertarians at the heart of the internet’s philosophy.

I don’t believe that ‘internet policing’ can really work on a state level and I don’t believe it should be allowed anyway.  Aside from creating a multi-lateral international organisation to control the internet, there is no feasible way that it could ever be done.  And this would never happen with state’s competing interests and inequalities in terms of wealth and internet access.  Governments shouldn’t be in control of what is on the internet, or in any media, and it should be up to the people of the internet to decide what should and shouldn’t be.

Where the line blurs between openness and control, though, is the issue of privacy.  We’re all aware of the fact that when we post something to Facebook or Twitter that the whole world can conceivably find it.  There are far too many cases to count over the last few years where celebrities or even just common people have got into hot water over posts to social network sites.  There are just as many cases of embarrassing pictures, videos or stories about people surfacing online to the chagrin of those involved.  We accept that the internet is a free and open forum for everyone’s personal information to be aired publically.  But should we really be okay with this?  The internet is potentially a massive threat to our idea of privacy, and that is a right which is a key theme of the libertarian ideals that so many of those at the heart of the internet industry subscribe to.

This topic is currently being featured in the news because of a European court’s ruling that laws should be amended to allow people to have the “right to be forgotten”, so that their information on the internet is allowed to be ‘lost’ to the ages rather than endlessly appearing in people’s searches.  It comes as a Spanish man has sought to remove an auction notice for his repossessed home from being online.  This ruling is not only important from a privacy standpoint, in that everyone should have a right to stop their most personal of information from being broadcasted to the world if it’s not in the public interest, but also from an internet standpoint.  If it benefits little of us to have this information there in the first place, why have it?  Google, easily the most powerful voice in the search engine industry, does not agree.  Google believes it is a form of censorship which it is vehemently against.  But they might just have to bow to the pressure and remove this man’s search entry, at the very least.

This debate will rumble on as the repercussions of the ruling become clear and how much the search engines will change their policies is unclear at the moment.  Despite being free, in theory, to do what they want online companies such as Google are heavily bound by governments’ ability to make life for them difficult as a business if they don’t comply with their rulings.  In companies where shareholders are often more powerful than ethics, it is likely that the threat of financial sanctions will prove enough to force a policy shift.

What I envision will happen, and what I hope will happen, will be an internet where search engines become more of a “best of” service rather than an “all of” one.   Not everyone’s personal details need to be online and similarly not every site online is worthy of being found.   I’ve spent a lot of time whilst I was at work, trawling through Google searches trying to find relevant websites that might benefit from knowing about the company.  Going through Google to find useful websites was a massive challenge as about half of the sites, or even more as you went further down the long tail, were websites that had been abandoned for years or simply didn’t exist anymore.  Some would be duplicates of each other and some would have absolutely no information on them at all.  Having these appear in search engines is not useful and doesn’t provide me with a good service.  These websites, along with those that are offensive or widely considered to be illegal, should not have a place on these search engine results and steps can be taken to cut down on the amount of scrap.  This isn’t internet policing, but more of an internet trash service.

Google might now be inundated with requests to remove results from their pages in the wake of the EU’s ruling, and I think they should capitalise on this by making a great new service.   Users can make submissions to remove pages from search results if they think they aren’t very useful.  Search engines already weight social shares highly, so if people are showing your website to their friends and families it’s actually producing a benefit for you in terms of search engines, so the technology to do the opposite should be there.

People are more involved than ever in personally affecting search engines, so why can’t we just skip out the middle man and let users directly affect them?  A model like Reddit could be used, where you can upvote or downvote search results based on their usefulness.  Dead links, or those that really should be, can be instantly reported and the result can be allowed to freefall or jump off the search cliff completely.  Any site that is malicious or offering something illegal can be blacklisted by users so that others don’t fall foul of them.  Any personal information of you that you don’t want online can be deleted.  This follows the democratic libertarian idea of the internet and would allow search engines to fall in line with governments.

The debate on either side of the thin blue line will never change over internet policing.  Neither side has the power to overwhelm the other, so there will never be a winner.  But with the potential to involve more people in the process in both a positive and negative way, the internet has the power to govern itself more effectively and more democratically, which would appease both the internet companies and the governments.  This third way is perhaps the solution to the tricky issue of policing the internet.

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