Taming the Internet | Daily News

Taming the Internet

The World Wide Web is barely 30-years-old, yet we feel we have lived our entire lives with it. We depend on it practically 24 hours a day, as our smartphones and tablets are always on. The concept of the Internet itself turns 50 this year – it was in 1969 that the US military invented a system for computers across continents to talk to each other, known as the Internet. This would eventually evolve into what is today known as the World Wide Web or WWW.

On March 11, 1989, Tim Berners-Lee, a British computer programmer working at CERN, the European Particle Physics Laboratory, sent in a proposal for a new information management system. His boss responded with a note that read “vague but exciting.” That proposal was the first sketch of what would become the World Wide Web, creating the system that functions on the Internet today.

It is truly an invention or innovation that has changed our lives in a revolutionary way. Information, education, entertainment or personal relationships, the Web has brought the world closer together. But on the other hand, the positives of the Internet are being swamped by the negatives. The dark side of the Internet is a worrying prospect – pornographic sites, fake news and disinformation campaigns, trolls, hate speech, identity theft, online fraud and the threat of cyber attacks on economic nerve centres are among a few of those.

Berners-Lee recently said the Web has “given marginalized groups a voice,” but has also “created an opportunity for scammers, given a voice to those who spread hatred, and made all kinds of crime easier to commit.” Social media have become a platform for hate speech – the perpetrator of the Christchurch mosque shootings streamed the carnage live and these platforms struggled for about a week to remove the posts and videos.

In the face of these incidents, there are growing calls for the stricter regulation of the Internet, including from the industry itself. Facebook Chief Mark Zuckerberg himself appealed to Governments around the world recently to curb the Dark Web. Facebook and many other social media platforms including Twitter have taken steps to actively monitor the content and take down false or offending pages and posts. Recently, Facebook removed many posts and pages that provided false or misleading information on the Indian elections now underway. The challenge here is to protect free speech while keeping hate and falsehoods off the Internet.

It appears that Governments around the world are taking note. Singapore has joined the growing number of Governments passing strict regulations vis-à-vis the Internet. A Bill to tackle the spread of online falsehoods was introduced in the Singapore Parliament last week. The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill seeks to protect society from damage by online falsehoods created by “malicious actors”, the Ministry of Law of Singapore said.

The new law is aimed at providing the Government with powers to act against online falsehoods to protect public interest. A falsehood is defined as a statement of fact that is false or misleading. It does not cover opinions, criticisms, satire or parody, which the public can continue to upload and share. For action to be taken, there are two criteria that must be met - there must be a false statement of fact, and it must also be in the public interest for the Government to take action.

“Malicious actors”, or those who act deliberately to undermine society using falsehoods, will be subject to criminal action. Those who deliberately spread falsehoods online, knowing it can influence the outcome of an election, can be fined up to $50,000, jailed for up to five years or both, if found guilty in court.

Those who use bots to amplify the spread of falsehoods will be subject to more severe punishments. They can be fined up to $100,000 and jailed for up to 10 years. The Bill will also set out a binding Codes of Practice for technology companies to keep their online platforms safe and secure. It will focus on three areas: fake online accounts and bots, digital advertising transparency and de-prioritizing falsehoods. The Codes of Practice will be legally enforceable.

France and Germany are among the countries that have adopted new laws to deal with such falsehoods. France’s law against the manipulation of information was approved on its second reading on Nov. 20 last year. It targets the rapid dissemination of fake news through digital tools. In Germany, the Network Enforcement Act, which was passed in June 2017, requires social networks to promptly remove illegal content, including falsehoods that are criminal in nature.

It is time for Sri Lankan lawmakers to explore the possibility of taking such action to stem the flow of falsehoods that can threaten racial and religious harmony and result in other dangers. But as Berners-Lee says, “it would be defeatist and unimaginative to assume that the Web as we know it can't be changed for the better in the next 30 years”. Governments, web companies and users must ensure that this is the only future path of the Web.


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