Reflecting on 2023: A Year Where Politicians and the Media Conspired to Try and Break the Internet

Between existential threats and horrible ideas disguised as “regulating Big Tech”, 2023 has been a tiring year.

At around this time of year, I usually look back at the biggest stories and put together a top 10 list of the biggest stories. However, since I was forced to put the podcast on hiatus due to a lack of interest in a high quality technology news podcast, I have to come up with something else.

At the time of that episode being released, I had come up with an alternative of doing what I had done on other websites. That is doing a month by month summary of some of the biggest stories in a nice convenient wrap-up post. Sadly, due to the website designers I had hired to give the site a brand new look breaking my website for the last nearly two weeks now, I am unable to do even that as of the writing of this article.

So, I came up with this more or less last minute second alternative to wrap up the year where I just offer some general thoughts on the year that was.

One of the things that has been a constant is how much we, as a society, rely on the internet. As the years go by, the reliance on it becomes more and more obvious. I remember a time when the lessons that were taught in grade school was that using the internet would lead to a disconnect with other people. Essentially, if you find yourself using computer systems in general, then you’ll grow increasingly disconnected from everyone around you.

While there may have been a semblance of truth to that with the increasing rates of loneliness (that was greatly exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic), such thinking also turned out to be very very wrong. Society in the late 90’s and 2000’s was undergoing a considerable shift that was both technological and social with the explosion of the popularity of the internet.

When you fast forward to modern times, an internet connected computer has become so commonplace, almost everyone has a portable version of that in their pocket thanks to cell phone technology. Being connected to the internet for more than an hour is no longer considered problematic, but rather, the norm as people text each other, scroll through social media, or play games on their cell phones during work breaks, waiting for buses, or wherever they can squeeze in a little time.

If anything, not being connected to the internet 24/7 is a deeply problematic thing in first world societies. If you don’t believe me, try an experiment to see how long you can last without a cell phone before you run into problems. Trust me, it’s a lot harder than it sounds. Doable? Yes. Difficult? Yes. For example, just try telling someone to send you an e-mail instead of texting you and study their reaction. Yeah, you’ll feel like they are looking at you as if you are from another planet. Those who are not connected to the internet are the ones who have become the socially disconnected.

For all the dependency on the internet, though, you would think that there would not only be an increased literacy of how the internet works in general, but also an increased effort to make the internet a better place and make it more open, more secure, and more affordable than ever before. After all, one of the prevailing theories in the late 2000’s and early 2010’s was that if more people better understood how the internet works, there wouldn’t be as many misguided ideas on how to regulate or change how the internet works.

I believe no one, or rather, very few of us, would have ever predicted that an increase in internet literacy would lead to politicians simply finding more efficient ways of trying to break the integrity of the internet. It would seem that educating politicians on how the internet works lead to them finding more efficient methods of destroying what society had become so attached to over the last 25 years.

Yet, that is exactly what had happened over the last few years – especially throughout 2023. Even worse, politicians and the rise in hyper-partisanship has led to widespread belief that these destructive changes were some sort of moral imperative where the longer normal functionality of the internet goes on, the more damaging this lack of change was somehow going to destroy society.

Artificial Intelligence

For instance, one major misguided belief is that AI is this monolithic threat to society where nothing good is ever going to come from it. Seemingly fuelled by Hollywood movies like The Terminator or iRobot, there is this belief that AI will simply lead to the destruction of people’s jobs or, even more ridiculous, the extinction of humanity. To date, these claims haven’t really been backed by any real hard data and, instead, relies on what appears to be the gut feelings of people who know little about the subject.

One example is the rise in AI image generation. Today, there are tools like Dall-E, Midjourney, and Canva AI that can create images by text prompts. The moral panic that ensued is that artists and photographers would be taken out of business overnight and any image that is created would just be products of AI. The hysteria, as it turned out, was completely overblown. People are still making money by snapping photo’s or creating images with digital or even (gasp!) traditional painting. Society carried on to the surprise of no one paying attention.

Then there is text generating AI such as ChatGPT. One again, the moral panic ensued that anyone who writes novels, magazines, scripts, or news articles would be practically out of work overnight because AI could write it all. Indeed, there were efforts by some publishers to do just that and the results wound up being disastrous and counterproductive. Writers all over the world will still have jobs going into 2024 after all. Once again, society carried on to the surprise of no one paying attention.

Yet, despite the overwhelming evidence that society wasn’t going to collapse overnight because of glorified auto-complete AI or AI that offers pictures of humans with 6 fingers and unintelligible text, there seems to be an ongoing war for some people to misuse the law in an effort to stop AI in its tracks. One great example is to declare that learning from content is copyright infringement even though the idea that the act of reading text is an act of copyright infringement is completely absurd.

Still, efforts to try and somehow fight back against AI is fuelled by a “damn the consequences” attitude as the quest to push back technology carries on – something that has been a very continuous theme for decades, if not, centuries now.

Regulating “Big Tech”

Of course, the war on the internet isn’t tied to something new, either. There’s also the war on platforms as well. The problematic part is that it is all roped under a banner that actually has a need, and that is the efforts to regulate “Big Tech”.

Indeed, there are area’s where “Big Tech” really does need regulation. Examples include better privacy protections for consumers, better protections for creators who are suffering from corporate copyright abuse, and actual oversight into the adtech industry where all parties are being properly compensated (better privacy laws dovetails nicely into this), and better competition laws to help bring healthier competition to the internet to name four examples. All of the above would objectively be things that could easily improve society as a whole.

Yet, unless you live in Europe where there is actual progress on the privacy front at least, the governments approaches have been to ignore these real area’s where progress needs to be made and, instead, focusing on areas that strike them as beneficial to their own personal gain. The results are all the same: leaving everyone worse off than before.

Link Taxes

One example that has featured all year were link tax laws. Generally speaking, link tax laws are a scheme to prop up legacy publishers who have refused to adapt to a modern age and, instead, siphons money from successful business models and pours that money into business models that have either failed or are in the process of failing due to lack of innovation or listening to their audiences. It would seem that the “I know best about what consumers want” is a hard egotistical attitude to break.

Once again, in a “damn the consequences” style quest, the very concept of referencing material requiring compensation winds up flipping copyright on its head. In pretty much every other field, referencing material is something that is well within the bounds of fair dealing or fair use (depends on what country you live in which term applies). The idea of referencing material becoming copyright infringement would be incredibly destructive to society where citing your sources would go from being encouraged to better bolster your arguments to something that is discouraged because that would rack up costs. You want to talk about what could fuel misinformation? This, right here, could very easily do that.

Probably the most astonishing thing in all of this is just how enthusiastically large media companies would burn their own credibility by actively cheer leading these efforts on. After all, let’s face it, if you are a news organization that has gotten sophisticated enough to take out advertising on platforms like Facebook or Google, then you are sophisticated enough to understand that other sites linking to you has value. There’s no middle ground here. You either value traffic from other sources or you don’t.

Yet, media companies that clearly knew better had no problem blatantly and obviously lying to the public about this issue. This includes the lie that linking is stealing, that platforms steal whole articles without permission and profit off of it, the charge that blocking news links is censorship, that it’s the job of the platforms to pay the sallaries of journalists, and other very obvious lies pushed by mainstream media outlets. Let me say it again, the media companies knew better, but chose to push these lies anyway.

Probably the part that infuriates me the most about this is that far right extremists have long accused large media companies of lying to the public. This for reasons like factually pointing out that munching on horse paste won’t cure COVID-19, accurately reporting that climate change is real, and pointing out flaws in right wing politicians. Yet, here we are today with the media falling over each other to prove the far right correct by very blatantly lying to the public for their own selfish business interests rather than actually doing their job and reporting on facts. It’s infuriating to witness this, but that is the reality we are all facing right now.

Fortunately, this year, people like us who pointed out the deeply flawed problems with various link taxes got to witness first hand the consequences of pushing such a law – even if it presented an existential threat. Meta dropped news links, cutting off an estimated $230 million in value provided to the news publishers. Google was on the verge of doing the same until the Canadian government folded to prevent an extinction level event from sweeping across the media landscape. While the $100 million was a very distracting point, it doesn’t even come close to covering what was lost with Meta dropping news links.

While there is debate over whether the Canadian government caving to Google was a loss for the open internet or not (I don’t believe it is), it did prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that there are consequences for pushing too hard for free money on the part of the media. There aren’t a lot of debates out there where the critics were right almost all of the time and supporters were wrong about virtually everything, but the Canadian link tax debate was certainly one of those lopsided debates.

What’s more, the Canadian situation should (who knows if it will or not?) serve as a warning to other countries as well. There is value in linking and if that value dries up for a sector, the consequences are disastrous. The platforms don’t depend on news links by any stretch of the imagination. To think otherwise is simply a foolish fantasy. In the end, a link tax was never a good idea and it ultimately benefits few, if anyone.

Age Verification

Another method that politicians have latched onto in their efforts to try and break the internet is through so-called age verification laws. Generally speaking, age verification envisions technology that simply doesn’t exist to gate off explicit material from minors. Some efforts target adult oriented websites which ends up proving damaging or not setting thresholds at all and threatening to get that jurisdiction kicked off the wider open internet entirely.

Whats worse about such laws is that it is antithetical to any efforts to bolster privacy online. Generally speaking, it requires people to divulge highly sensitive information to unproven companies just to keep their internet viewing experience uncensored by the government. That information would then be centrally stored somewhere to potentially be sold off to third parties (these are, after all, private companies hoping to turn a profit and selling personal information is highly enticing to them.) Privacy, generally speaking, is an afterthought in this whole process.

Even worse, such laws do nothing to solve the very problems they seek out to tackle in the first place. VPNs and proxies exist, there’s nothing stopping credentials from being stolen, and, what’s more, the internet never was the sole source of such material in the first place. Essentially, this is a law that creates a host of problems while solving nothing all in the name to “protect the children”.

What’s more, this hyperventilating over adult material is generally overblown in the first place. While there is a pervasive theory that the internet is chock full of porn and you can’t go anywhere without tripping over adult oriented imagery or text, the truth in the matter is that such material these days has to be sought out.

Indeed, there are many web hosting companies out there who discourage websites from hosting such material. Read the terms of service for a number of companies and the general consensus is that if you intend in building a website with adult content in mind, you’re going to have to look elsewhere because the host will ban you if you do attempt to use their services for such content.

What’s more, adult oriented websites are actually very centralized when you look at the corporate structure. If you want to know how centralized such sites are, just ask how much of the large adult websites are owned by MindGeek. It’s actually quite astonishing once you have an answer to that. Even the, just this year, MindGeek itself was acquired by a private equity firm as well. So, the so-called “monopoly” for adult websites is now owned by someone else at this point. That’s just how extreme that consolidation is happening there. Not exactly the “showing too much skin” at every corner everyone seems to make the internet out to be.

Ultimately, age verification is a poorly thought out campaign largely pushed by politician’s who simply don’t understand the nature of the internet today. It would be amusing if the threats to privacy, among other things, weren’t so real.

Online Harms

Another theme throughout 2023 is the concept of “Online Harms”. It’s another way in which politicians have been trying to break the internet. In short, legislation tackling online harms is about the wrongheaded idea that platforms not only do nothing to moderate content, but actively spread disinformation as well. Kind of ironic that news organizations latched onto this when they, themselves, have proven to be a source of disinformation and misinformation as well.

So, in an effort to stop the evil platforms from destroying society, the government is basically setting in place laws that stop so-called “harmful” information and penalizing websites that don’t comply.

A problematic aspect is that there is a grain of truth buried in all of this. Indeed, there is the existence of disinformation online. All you have to do is click on almost anything that “trends” on X/Twitter and the disinformation is, indeed, readily accessible. Of course, X/Twitter is a unique case where a far right billionaire acquired the platform and turned it into a right wing echo chamber crammed full of bots and spam. Let’s face it, ActivityPub is more or less a response to such a threat to social media in the first place.

Of course, such misinformation tends to get overblown and is, ironically, heavily publicized by the major media outlets in the first place in their shortsighted bid to condemn it or to try and drum up interest on their flagging media programs by insisting that the next election really is a horse race (honest!).

Generally speaking, the internet is, for the most part, a permissive atmosphere where anyone can talk about any topic at any time. If there is interest in a topic, then people who produce content are more than happy to talk about it. If you actively seek out restoration videos, then you might get the impression that the internet is all about restoration video’s. If you actively seek out advice on quilting, then you’ll get quilting content. Of course, if you seek out conspiracy theories, you’ll get conspiracy theories.

Yet, for mainstream media companies and numerous politicians, all the internet is is a hive of disinformation threatening to upend all of society and the government needs to step in yesterday to put a stop to the evil internet. You know, because why talk about all the great content that exists online when you can talk about one specific segment you don’t like?

Naturally, the problem with laws trying to “fix” this problem is that it causes far more damage than it ever hopes to prevent. For instance, some variations demand that all websites take down “harmful” content within, say, 24 hours or face millions in fines. What is “harmful”? Whatever the complaining party (who can be anonymous) thinks is “harmful”. It doesn’t matter because the website is just guilty until proven innocent.

In the United States, there is certainly a Section 230 defence to all of this, but Section 230 has been under fire for all the wrong reasons. What’s more, other countries may not have such protections to guard against such terribly thought out laws.

The end results is obvious, whole websites either shut down voluntarily for fear that they could be targeted by someone or by the government. After all, somewhat might disagree with a watering technique for pole bean plants and file countless complaints against your site for it. Are you, as an owner of a website that talks about agriculture prepared to handle such issues? Probably not. Hey, if cooking video’s can spark investigations from safety inspectors over nothing, then anything is possible.

Even worse, a number of these laws also have internet censorship provisions built into them. So, if a website is not in a given country, then the government can order the local ISPs to block those websites. You know, the same kind of thing that third world countries do. This raises all sorts of free speech concerns that could ultimately be its own article.

At the end of the day, though, this is yet another law that does little to solve anything, and will very likely cause considerable harm to the overall internet.

Concluding Thoughts

Without a doubt, 2023 has been a very stressful year – and not because I am without a functioning website as of the writing of this article. I thought I was going to lose my writing career because of the badly thought out link tax in Canada. There’s the potential for the Canadian government to essentially neuter any chances of people making careers out of online video content. While at least one threat has been essentially killed, there are many others moving forward.

One thing I did notice, however, was that efforts to crack down on the internet shows no real political stripe. Yes, there are those on one side of the aisle accusing the other side of the aisle of destroying the internet and cracking down on human rights in the process. The sad reality is that curtailing human rights while cracking down on the internet is seemingly a bi-partisan effort. The only reason a number of these laws haven’t come to fruition is because of squabbles over how to crack down on the internet.

For a technological concept that people use every day and, more often then not, actively depend on it, you would think there would be much more pushback on these efforts than what you have already witnessed. Instead, a depressingly huge number of people have been convinced that their political side of cracking down on the internet is the righteous thing and the other side is being evil. As a result, right now, the internet is still more or less puttering along because of political gridlock.

While this may be a rare case where political gridlock may be a good thing, it is also a very unstable thing to keep the open internet alive. If one side gives way, then the other side will get their style of a controlled internet. Spoiler alert: neither side is what you want. It’s for these reasons that 2024 is also making me a bit nervous. Sure, there are some political realities that might save the day such as an election, but the risks to the open internet have never been greater.

I truly hope that we’ll all get lucky in 2024 and few, if any, bad ideas make it across the legislative finish line. Unfortunately, I can’t honestly say for certain that this will happen at this point. So, all we can do at this point is hope for the best, but be prepared for the worst.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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