A recent posting on The Drum illustrates Google’s dominance of the on-line world. A five minute outage last Saturday apparently led to a drop of 40% in overall traffic. It was a Saturday and the time of day is not given but it illustrates how thoroughly the Internet is dominated by a handful of US-based players.
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Leaving aside controversy over the access they must give to the US government, what about their views on the rights of privacy they give to their users. The views of Google can be seen from their recent claim in a US court case that “a person has no legitimate expectation of privacy in information he voluntarily turns over to a third party”. This should be juxtaposed with their denial of liability to UK jurisdiction . They took a similar position in Brazil some years ago until Diageo, which had been subjected to a consumer boycott organised by the local equivalant of Mumsnet, threatened to withdraw all its advertising (globally) unless it took action against the material concerned. They will submit to the jurisdiction of “the market” – but that “jurisdiction” has to be genuine and robust.
The good news is therefore that, unlike Amazon, Google is more interested in profit than world domination. Their attitudes also reflect the view of the Internet’s founding fathers that they were to be trusted while their Government was not. But are they? And is that view sustainable now that the Internet is an integral part of modern life?
How many of us really trust those who can scan the entire “public” Internet inside an hour,
especially since Google, and presumably others, now also claim legitimate (not just back-door) access to the supposedly “private” cloud-based Intranets that link to it.
If they are to sustain their current share price they will have to do rather more than they are at present to show that we really can trust them.
Meanwhile other players appear rather less than enthusiastic about their responsibilities with regard to policing abuse, (from cyber stalking and bullying to impersonation and fraud) while persuading government to spend money repeating simplistic messages to encourage us to use security products that block access other than to their approved websites while giving less real protection against malware infections than a leaky condom.
“All human life is there” and “the Global Village” are both only too true of the Internet. It relfects the best and worst of humanity as well as all the mediocrity in between. As in a village, there is no genuine privacy – Anyone with the wish and will can find your “business”. More-over the gossips and bullies can be as malicious and unforgiving as in the real world.
Equally no genuine anonymity. Google (and others) know not only which age, sex and breed of dog uses to supposedly anonymous connection, but which lamp posts you are likely to frequent. Meanwhile most of us receive regular e-mails “from our bank” asking us to reset passwords and 20% of children have already suffered cyberbullying.
Meanwhile those who should help protect their users, when challenged, provide systemic misinformation about their likely abusers. When Ask.fm said that 98% of the abuse against the late Hannah Smith came from the Internet address she herself used, that meant it was local: from the proxy server she shared with her supposed friends: whether at school, the local Internet cafe or to get round school or parental controls. Implying that she sent the traffic herself may have condemned dozens (perhaps hundred) of similar victims to despair, whether or not they have lost control of their own systems to abusers.
The biggest difference between a global and a traditional village is, however, that the vulnerability to viking trolls, arriving without notice from far away and destroying the community is much greater. Hence the need for effective on-line community policing. But the most effective global village policemen live on the other side of the world, pay no local taxes and are focussed on meeting business targets.
The current pressures to pay local taxes, to self-regulate content and to make the UK the safest place in the world to go online should be viewed in that context.
Those who say that the Prime Minister does not understand how the Internet works are nearly as ignorant as those who think that on-line community policing will be any less messy than real-life community policing: where, in the absence of effective, democratically accountable law and order, the land splits between villages ruled by vigilantes and ghettoes run by the local “community” or gang leader.
The Internet is driven by advertising revenues and is therefore more vulnerable to consumer boycott than to regulatory action. That means that the profitability of the players depends on improving the confidence of consumers that they are indeed safe because those whose services they use will take effective action when they report abuse.
Time is, however, running out if we are to head off a collapse of public (including boardroom and political) confidence in the privacy and security of the global on-line village. That collapse is current leading to pressure to support a series of fragmented, incoherent and probably counter-productive regulatory initiatives by governments which will serve to delay and cripple economic recovery while protecting the positions of those current dominant players who have enough legal firepower to create the loopholes they will exploit to evade the spirit, as opposed to the letter, of whatever is imposed.
Hence the importance of working together to rebuild confidence in the on-line world.