nough is enough," said Theresa May outside 10 Downing Street
after the London Bridge attack last month. "When it comes to taking on extremism and terrorism, things need to change." And one of those things was the behaviour of internet firms, which should not allow extremism a place to breed. "Yet that is precisely what the internet - and the big companies that provide internet-based services - provide," she continued.
May's speech was only the latest example of the frustration among governments with the way that the internet, and internet companies, seem to elude and ignore the rules by which everyone else has to live. From encrypted apps used by terrorists (but also by peaceful activists) to online abuse, and fake news to hacking and radicalisation, the friction between the two sides is growing. France and Germany have implemented fines for companies that allow Nazi content to remain online, while in the US the FBI demanded that Apple write software to hack into an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino killers, and took the firm to court when it refused
Internet companies, meanwhile, suggest that governments should butt out because these companies control the tools that can sort out the problems. However, governments have much to say on the matter. The European commission's decision to fine Google â?¬2.4bn (Â£2.1bn) for favouring its own shopping service - with decisions yet to come on its control of Android and the Google Play app store - suggest that some problems, at least, are seen as the province of legislators.
In the meantime, the public is caught in the middle: relying on both tech companies and government, and often as puzzled as the politicians why so little can be done. (In the FBI-Apple case, public opinion about which side was correct was almost evenly split; the FBI eventually dropped the case when it found another company to carry out the hack.)
Why, politicians and public ask, can't these companies give us just the benefits of digital communication, and not the downsides? It's the implication of May's remarks; it's the implication of the frosty meetings between successive home secretaries and internet executives, such as the one two weeks ago between Amber Rudd and Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg, who, the Sun reported, planned to "refuse MI5 access to terror plotters' encrypted messages". This makes it sound as though Sandberg could somehow personally reverse the encryption built in to WhatsApp (which Facebook owns) or Telegram (favoured by terror groups for features such as time-limited messages - and which Facebook doesn't own). She can't, or at least in WhatsApp's case to do so would render it hopelessly insecure for everything, while leaving untouched the scores of other apps using the unbottled genie of unbreakable encryption.
Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg was reported to have had a terse meeting with home secretary Amber Rudd following recent terrorist attacks. Photograph: Antoine Antoniol/Getty Images
At this point, the word "regulation" always surfaces. Can't governments regulate the internet, or regulate the companies? The idea of a "bonfire of regulations" was popular after the Brexit vote. Following the Grenfell Tower calamity, however, the notion that regulation might actually be useful is back in vogue. If you enforce regulations for cladding, why not for videos and other content online?
To some, the idea of regulation is more complex. "Since when has the internet not been regulated? It's simply regulated poorly," says Douglas Rushkoff, a media commentator who was one of the earliest to spot the potential of the internet in the early 1990s. Back then, he says, "we cyberpunks saw the law as the enemy. They had been arresting the best of us for â??hacking' into things. Teenagers were thrown into jail in Operation Sun Devil [in 1990]. So we agreed with [Electronic Frontier Foundation co-founder John Perry] Barlow when he established the net as a government-free zone in his declaration of independence of cyberspace."
That document, published in 1996, proclaimed (with a certain pompous certainty) that the internet was a new place entirely, which would be beyond the regulatory grasp of the "weary giants of flesh and steel" and that "you [governments] have no moral right to rule us, nor do you possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear".
Bill Clinton's administration was happy enough to allow that idea to flourish in order to let this new avenue of commerce to grow, effectively turning the net into the equivalent of an economic free-trade zone by loosening tax laws (a move that significantly benefited Amazon, among others). Everyone was happy - for a while, at least. "What we didn't realise was that pushing government off the net made it a free for all for corporations, and a new form of digital capitalism was born," Rushkoff says.
That capitalism has enabled the rise of "winner takes all" businesses, where Google and Facebook get more than 70% of all US online advertising spending, and are increasing that share. Tick off a few names - Google, Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter - and you have the names of the companies whose platforms control almost all of what you see online.
There are two driving forces behind any internet company: first, capture a gigantic audience that depends on your service. Second, figure out how to make money from them. Ultra-growth often comes from breaking the usual rules of business (particularly the initial need to make a profit) and exploiting loopholes in, or just ignoring, the law. Many companies operate with an underlying assumption that the law somehow doesn't apply to the internet; a number of companies have discovered belatedly that it certainly does, from Napster (shut after court rulings) to TV re-broadcaster Aereo (shut down after a US supreme court ruling) to Airbnb (reined in by local rental regulations) to Uber (reined in by city transport regulations).
Uber's activities have attracted the ire of governments and city authorities around the world. Photograph: Geoffroy van der Hasselt/AFP/Getty Images
When it works, though, that growth creates a "network effect" (where you want to join a network because your friends are on it; you won't leave for another one because none of your friends are on that). Monetisation then draws in the money being spent in that niche, and depletes the money available for rivals, including those using old technology. Because the internet favours the nimble, smaller companies reap the early benefits, and then increase their grip by strengthening the network effect.
Is that good, though? Jaron Lanier, an internet pioneer who first espoused the idea of commercial virtual reality (in the 1990s), worried in his 2013 book Who Owns the Future? that the way new companies such as Instagram use the internet is destroying the middle class by removing jobs and offering no replacement. "It's a winner-take-all capitalism that's not sustainable," he told Salon. He pointed to Instagram, not then owned by Facebook, as having just 13 employees, and having effectively wiped out Kodak, the camera and film-maker, which had employed thousands. Where, he asked, had those thousands of jobs gone? No one quite knows.
Even as they revel in their network-reinforced positions, the big tech companies are battling with problems so big and intractable, and so far-reaching in their effects, that to find comparisons in the real world you have to look for truly global phenomena. The problems engendered by the internet have crept up on us over the years, but only recently have they seemed overwhelming. It's like a social form of climate change, and the analogy works surprisingly well.
When the industrial revolution got under way, replacing human labour with machines was more efficient, more powerful, and expanded humanity's horizons. Machines powered by coal and then oil liberated people from drudgery and made entirely new lifestyles possible.
No one knew that the accretion of emissions from those machines would contribute to potentially devastating climatic, and hence societal, changes. Even if they had known in the 1800s that steam power would affect the ice sheets of the recently discovered continent of Antarctica, so that two centuries later sea levels and surface temperatures would be rising, would they have cared? After all, it's hard to say enough people do even now.
Comparing the internet's social effects to climate change, one sees many of the same modest initial intents and big longer-term effects. For example, Twitter's founders were trying to create a messaging system that could work on mobile phones and would be like the status messages used on desktop chat systems. Then they discovered it could offer real-time updates from anywhere, from plane crashes in the Hudson to what's presently skittering across Donald Trump's mind. But it has also contributed to an atmosphere where users can be harassed on a scale unimaginable in physical form. Twitter's founders would have been - and still are - appalled by the idea that they had created a service that would enable the organised harassment of women (as seen in the Gamergate dispute), or the organisation of the "alt-right", or the disruption by paid Russian trolls of the US presidential election and, perhaps, Brexit.
But they built the engines for it. In 2012, Twitter's UK general manager, Tony Wang, told a London audience that, in the view of its chief executive (then Dick Costolo, since replaced by the returning founder Biz Stone) and its chief counsel, the social network was "the free-speech wing of the free-speech party". "There are Twitter rules about what you can and can't do on the platform," he added. However, those rules were exceedingly loosely applied. Extremists and troublemakers of all stripes flourished on Twitter; after a while it wasn't their presence that was shocking, but their being banished. Continue Reading>>