The War on the Internet Could be Very Costly for Everyone

Several countries are already waging a war on the general internet. The question is, how much will it alter?

The early days of the internet certainly had its faults. Whether it was slow dial-up connections, precious little in the way of quality content, and websites designed with frames and blink tags, there’s no question the early days had its faults. However, there is a particularly big advantage the internet had back in the day that was easily taken for granted. That is, the internet was not well known and few people could really harness its power in the early days. That means government officials weren’t wringing their hands over how best to control it, very little media attention was paid to it, and experimentation was a huge thing.

Fast forward to today and it seems that you can’t really escape the media coverage about whatever the next moral panic should be, lawmakers tabling loads of bills about how they think the government could control the Internet, and experimentation has largely been isolated to the largest websites such as YouTube or Facebook. It’s the sort of thing that can make many oldschool people such as myself wish we could go back to the old days when the internet was just so much more “free” for a lack of a better term.

This is not to say that the modern internet doesn’t have its perks. The quality of the content has certainly improved. There’s more interest than ever before over what content people choose to spend time with. What’s more, there’s more opportunity than ever before to “make it big” on the internet. In fact, the internet is so large, it’s extremely easy to have super stars become overnight billionaires because of something that happened to them on the internet and you might not even know about it. It’s truly a testament to how absolutely massive the internet truly has become.

It’s perhaps for the very reason that there is so much interest that the internet has been under increasing attack over the last several years. Traditional multimedia companies thought they could ignore the growth of the internet until it faded away into obscurity turned out to be a massive mistake. As a result, they easily see their profit margins disappearing as a direct result of these decisions. A rallying cry has always been, “just harness the power of the internet and work with this new age”, yet, time and time again, this advice was continually ignored despite the obvious technological shift.

Unfortunately, this has led to some of the most significant attacks on the internet around the world in first world countries. The response is to lobby lawmakers to try and make it so all that sweet sweet traffic goes to them by any means necessary. That has certainly led to some legislation such as Canada’s notorious social media censorship bill or Australia’s devastating link tax laws.

Of course, the influence of these traditional broadcasters didn’t translate into the entire picture of the war on the open internet (though some of the reporting may have influenced other aspects). This includes several countries efforts to destroy effective encryption or the UKs Online Safety Bill which rolls online harms and anti-encryption bill into one massive catastrophe.

When I look at all of these efforts (this is, indeed, not a comprehensive list of bad bills), I can’t help but remember back in the late 2000’s and early 2010’s how many people advanced the argument that if the government and these companies better understood the internet, they would see the potential and work with it instead of against it. It’s safe to say that, since then, governments and media companies have gotten a somewhat better understanding of the internet. Unfortunately, that additional understanding has led to better ways to undermine it all.

Indeed, if all of these bad ideas were made into law, would there be much of an internet left? First of all, you have the insane liability thrown on websites in the name of fighting “misinformation” or “harmful content”. It’s easy to see many of them shutting down in response. With social media censorship laws being pushed, if they become law, those same people building cool new innovative websites wouldn’t even have social media to turn to. Their content would just get downranked into oblivion, making it impossible to really break through.

Then, to add insult to injury, the anti-encryption efforts would make it much harder to reliably connect to servers that would otherwise host such content in a much more underground manner. Anyone caught using encryption would have reason to fear of being prosecuted, no matter the reason behind using it.

The real question in all of this is, if these legislative efforts become the law of the land, how much of an internet would there be left? Between the massive amounts of censorship, the tight control of large platforms, and inability to even start or maintain your own website, and good security being banned, it’s hard to say what else there would be left.

Of course, this is all worst case scenario. What happens in the event that this only partly makes it into law? Specifically, what if some of this becomes law, but then gets taken to the courts on constitutional grounds? Would a theoretical judge grant an injunction as the case proceeds or not? We’re talking multiple jurisdictions and multiple kinds of laws here, so the answer is never going to be clear until it actually happens.

Still, the potential damage for any of these concepts becoming law for any period of time can be devastating. In fact, we already have examples of this that many in the free speech community consider a “canary in the coalmine” case. One such example is the passage of SESTA/FOSTA in the US. As a result of the laws passage, several websites either shut down services in the US, shut down completely, or impacted the operations of several large sites.

Probably dampening the perceived impacts was the fact that this law, and the websites affected by it, focused on websites that dealt with relationships and sexuality, rather than the whole internet. So, for a number of users, they never really noticed the difference. Those in the sex trade in the US, however, know full well the impact this has had – and it was not good. Many workers have reported that their jobs have become much more risky for their personal safety because many tools that have helped to keep these workers safe had been shut down thanks to this law.

While some people might get uncomfortable looking towards any aspect of the sex trade, many lessons can be learned about the impacts a law like SESTA/FOSTA can have. You really can’t even grasp the full scope of the negative repercussions until they actually happen.

It is precisely these reasons why so many are freaked out about some of these other legislative efforts – including us. It may be easy for those less in the know (or are paid not to know) to dismiss all of this as hyperbole or overblown. If a small focused law that affected the protections of Section 230 can have such a massive effect on the Internet, just think about how much damage a bill targeting the whole internet there would be.

For instance, if Canada’s online harms bill becomes law with the 24 hour takedown requirements, I struggle to think how my website could actually survive. I can’t even begin to contemplate how many other sites would be forced to shut down operations in Canada, shut down entirely, or be forced to move to another country just to stay alive. I can’t even begin to visualize how many website owners would get caught off guard and be ordered to pay millions over a law they had no idea was even a thing (simply because they are focused on their day-to-day operations of their site).

When I look at the social media censorship bill in Canada, I can’t help but think that if that became law, I would never be successful on any platform. Would Canada ever be home to our own MrBeast? I highly doubt it if that bill became law. Many have openly contemplated leaving the country should such a bill become law. Others are pretty much seeing their streaming lives flash before their eyes. Tens of thousands, if not, hundreds of thousands, would probably be affected by this in a devastating way.

Then there is the anti-encryption laws. If every business is forced to use some “government approved” encryption or is forced to just ditch security altogether, how would e-commerce even work in the first place? Whether it is banking transactions, online shopping, or the buying of general services, every aspect ultimately requires encryption somewhere along the line (or it’s just really really insecure and not advised). If that encryption is weakened (which is certainly would be with such a law), that undermines the trust and can become open to fraud and hacking.

What’s more is that we’ve already seen the consequences of a government making demands that they should be allowed to break encryption. After Australia passed their anti-encryption laws, they used those laws to raid a news outlet, targeting journalists for covering a politically sensitive topic. That should be the ultimate reason why people should be worried when they make demands of peering into everyone’s messages and encrypted information. It risks the idea of such a story about a raid being a norm and not an exception.

We really could go on and on about the potential damage such laws could have – even if they are temporarily enforced, however, it’s a good prediction that we’ve made our point.

Still, it is for these and many other reasons why we have been so concerned about such laws in the first place. We could go from an internet of thriving entrepreneurship and innovation to an internet of survival. Instead of asking who has the best and most interesting content, the question then becomes, who can survive these incredibly damaging laws? It is by no means pleasant and a lot of people are going to be hurt by it.

A lot of people will take for granted how much stuff is actually out there to enjoy just like how people took for granted how few people knew about the internet back in the 90’s. If one truly enjoys what they have today, fighting against these laws, regardless of political leaning, should be a priority. If not, then we may be one day looking back at today and saying, “remember the days when the internet was popular and anyone could run with any innovative idea that pops into their heads?” That is an internet era I hope I never see.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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