Taming the World Wild Web

I first started looking at the issue of setting boundaries on the internet around 15 years ago, in the early days of this blog. At the time, the concern was illegal content: child abuse and exploitation, hate, and death threats.

In the early days, there were many naysayers.

They said the internet can’t be tamed – there is just no technical means to do so. We were told regulating the internet would break it. “Your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to us. They are all based on matter, and there is no matter here.”

Times have changed. Around the world, the discussion has transitioned from why we cannot tame the ‘World Wild Web’ into how should we regulate content and platforms.

Already, internet services providers around the world routinely block illegal and malicious content, such as child abuse images, viruses, spam, attacks.

Various countries are imposing a variety of rules on content, dating back perhaps 20 years to France / Yahoo, and Europe’s 2018 General Data Protection Regulation, ensuring that major platforms conform to national laws. And Canada is hardly the only country looking at ways to get global technology firms to share in the wealth to achieve internet related social objectives. FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr linked to his new opinion piece in Newsweek (Ending Big Tech’s Free Ride) saying, “Big Tech has enjoyed a free ride on our Internet infrastructure while sticking everyday Americans with billions of dollars in costs. It’s time to end this sweetheart deal and force Big Tech to pay its fair share.”

I won’t delve into the details of Canada’s Bill C-10, “An Act to amend the Broadcasting Act and to make related and consequential amendments to other Acts”, other than to say that just about everyone should agree that Canada’s Broadcast Act (1991) was overdue for an update. Thirty years ago, the very nature of broadcasting was very different from today. The term ‘convergence’ was being thrown around, but telephone companies were not yet seriously competing in the TV distribution business; at the time, few understood the disruptive potential for over-the-top video services. Netflix was still 7 years away from starting its DVD by mail service. Amazon wasn’t created until 3 years later.

Hence, the creation of the Broadcast and Telecom Legislative Review panel, its national consultations and the resultant January 2020 report [pdf, 2.4 MB], all of which lead up to the legislation being reviewed by Parliament’s Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage. It was not produced in a vacuum.

In “The crackdown on ‘Big Tech’ targets symptoms rather than the disease itself” in the Globe and Mail this past weekend, Sue Gardner writes “[Heritage Minister] Guilbeault and his team are on a mission to regulate Big Tech. It’s important work, it’s overdue and it needs to move forward.” She concludes “it’s possible the government is laying the groundwork for legislation designed to go to the heart of the problem: the business model.”

Relevant to this discussion, it is worth noting that while Parliament’s Heritage Committee reviews Bill C-10, the Senate is reviewing Bill S-203, “An Act to restrict young persons’ online access to sexually explicit material”.

Similar discussions of regulating “Big Tech” are occurring south of the border. There is an interesting session being held tomorrow afternoon, Wednesday May 26, from 12:30-1:30 (Eastern time), looking at Section 230 of the US Communications Decency Act, a section designed to promote a competitive online ecosystem that maximizes user control while guarding against illegal activities. “Proposals to reform Section 230 — and views about its impact — vary. Some believe the law is a key protector of online expression, while others believe it provides cover for suppression of free speech. And some seek to expand Big Tech’s responsibility to limit what can be said on social media.”

The session, to be moderated by Mark Jamison (Director of University of Florida’s Public Utility Research Center), will feature panelists:

  • Alan M. Dershowitz, Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law, Emeritus, Harvard Law School
  • Daniel Lyons, Visiting Fellow, AEI, and Professor of Law, Boston College
  • Matt Perault, Director, Center on Science & Technology Policy, Duke University

I suspect some issues will arise that are relevant to policy and legislative matters being reviewed in Canada. And it is free of charge.

It’s no longer a question of whether the World Wild Web can be tamed. The key question is how.

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