The Internet is everywhere in modern life. But it wasn’t always this way, and some say it shouldn’t remain this way. What is the Internet and how does it affect our lives – for better and for worse?
Is the Internet bad?
Is the Internet bad?
Why is it called "spam"?
Unwanted emails and texts are called "spam" because of a skit in a 1970s TV comedy show, "Monty Python's Flying Circus". A restaurant insists on serving customers SPAM (a type of processed meat) with every meal, even when they protest that they don't like it. In the early days of the internet, the term came to be used for messages that were intrusive or unwanted.
What is the Internet exactly?
“The Internet is not a big truck. It’s a series of tubes” – US Senator Ted Stevens, 2006
We might think of the Internet as the magical invisible place where we order food, watch Netflix, chat with our friends and share funny memes. But none of these are actually what the Internet is – they are services that are offered through the Internet or content hosted via it, but they’re not actually the network itself. Find out about the equipment that actually makes up the Internet in these videos...
You might already know that the idea of linking computers together into a network was invented in the 1960s as a way of transmitting messages in the event of a nuclear catastrophe. And you might have heard UK physicist Tim Berners-Lee referred to as “the father of the World Wide Web”.
But where does the modern Internet actually exist? Who is in charge of it? If you wanted to go on a school trip to visit the Internet, where would you go and what would it look like when you got there?
In this video Vint Cerf, one of the computer scientists who helped create the Internet, discusses how it actually works and how it came to exist:
Hang on a minute – how is the internet different to the World Wide Web? This TedEd video explains:
Need more detail? This video from the World Science Festival traces the journey made by one request to load a website, showing how computers break up the messages we send to one another into small pieces of information called ‘packets’, how these messages are transmitted across long distances by underwater fibre optic cables, and how they are decoded at the other end, all in only a second’s worth of time!
What is net neutrality?
Currently, Internet service providers are required to treat all datastreams the same, meaning that information is delivered to you just as quickly regardless of whether it's coming to you from a small personal homepage or a large corporation's website. But what if ISPs were allowed to discriminate so that information came to you more quickly from one website than another?
For example, if a big pizza chain were able to pay Internet providers to make their website load extra-quickly while your local pizza shop's site was slowed down, would that affect your dinner-ordering choices?
And what if ISPs could even charge you extra money for streaming music or watching videos at peak times?
This video from the BBC explains why net neutrality matters:
Who uses the Internet around the world?
Just how popular is the Internet around the world? When did people in different countries start going online, and how many people have access to Internet and mobile phone technologies worldwide? These interactive maps prepared by data scientists at the Oxford Martin School have some of the answers...
This map looks at the share of the population in each country that uses the Internet. A person is counted as an "Internet user" if they have gone online at any time in the past three months. By using the slider at the bottom of the map, you can move backwards in time to see which countries started using the Internet first, and how rates of growth differed in different places.
Meanwhile, this map shows the uptake of mobile phone technology around the world. By using the slider or changing to the chart view at the bottom of the map, you can see that the rise in mobile phone users was very slow until the the late 1990s and then dramatically faster at the beginning of the 21st century.
Julia Murphy and Max Roser (2019) - "Internet". Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: 'https://ourworldindata.org/internet' [Online Resource]
These maps were created by Julia Murphy and Max Roser at the Oxford Martin School for the Our World in Data page "Internet" (2019). You can view the original article at https://ourworldindata.org/internet, and explore lots more maps, graphs and statistics from the Our World in Data site.
How can the Internet help people get clean water?
The maps above show the rise in Internet and mobile phone use in the developing world -- but how are people using these new technologies?
Patrick Thomson, from Oxford University's Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, works on a project called Smart Water Systems. In this video, he explains how connecting water pumps to the Internet can help people get access to clean, fresh water with fewer delays for breakages and repairs.
How could the internet affect the future of work?
Research Officer Tebello Qhotsokoane, from the Oxford University Blavatnik School of Government, carries out research into how the Internet affects social inequality. He explains how "frontier technologies" such as artificial intelligence (AI), mobile financial transactions and "gig economy" work platforms such as Uber and Deliveroo could affect people's lives.
Did you know?
Although there are around 7000 living world languages, more than 70% of all websites are in one of just four European languages - English, Russian, German or Spanish (source).
How does the Internet cause global conflict and suffering?
Surfing the Internet can be great. You can access all kinds of information, keep in touch with friends and family, or store important files in the “cloud” that you can then grab and download from anywhere. But there are also some dangers...
- Online and cyber-crime
- Cyber-crime is the overall term used for lots of illegal activities online, some of which use Internet technology to target individuals or businesses. A distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack is when someone tries to stop a service being delivered – usually by overwhelming a system with requests for data, and thus crashing devices, networks, servers and so on. That can take an app down, or a website – meaning a huge impact on people and businesses.
- But it’s not just companies who can be hit by criminals. You might have been asked to set up two-step verification if you’re buying things on Etsy or eBay, meaning you have a security code texted to you after you’ve entered your usual password. This is because hackers can sometimes get hold of passwords and then use your details to shop online or even apply for credit cards.
- If that happens, you can also be at risk of identity theft. If your birthday is visible on social media, cyber-criminals could potentially set up bank accounts with your details. It’s also wise to be cautious about what information you share on your profiles – quite often banks and other organisations ask for your mother’s last name or the name of your first pet or school as a security screening process. If the answers are easy to work out from your Facebook profile, you could be in trouble. Be careful also with the links you click on or the attachments you download – some sites and documents look very authentic but are really just intended to trick you into giving away your personal data or downloading a computer virus that will be able to take your information from your files.
- Getting your house broken into definitely pre-dates the Internet, but it's also worth being aware that by posting holiday pictures publicly online, you could be telegraphing to thieves that your house is unattended, especially if it's easy to work out your address from your online profile.
- If you're worried about online and cyber-crime, this list from Stay Safe Online has some great tips for protecting your personal data and ensuring your software is secure.
- Some people argue that countries can now wage war using the Internet. If a nation or organisation tries to digitally access or damage another country’s computers or networks, that’s known as cyber-warfare. The aim is to create damage, death and destruction by impacting on a country’s infrastructure (the systems, organisations and objects that keep a country running) – by getting hold of national security information, or by sabotaging important systems such as power stations, the electric grid or medical databases. There have been incidents where “worms” (like computer viruses) have got into systems and handed over control of them to people in another country – in these circumstances, these viruses are basically acting like weapons. It’s also possible to target a country’s banks and stock markets, meaning their economy could be badly hurt. It’s no wonder that lots of countries now have their own cyber-warfare units as part of government – ready to defend or attack should they be required, just like the army, air force or navy. It's worth being aware the the strength of government defences mean that a catastrophic attack is unlikely – but it could still affect people's lives.
- Stalking and harassment
- You might think of stalking and harassment as things that happen only in real life, with someone following someone else down the street, or waiting outside their house or workplace. But this can also be done online – either in addition to face-to-face harassment or instead of it. Stalkers can gain information about their victims online, perhaps via social media or blogs, and then use that to target them. Sometimes they might be trying to force their victim to have a relationship with them, sending them repeated messages that they think are flattering. Sometimes they might be threatening their victim with violence, or threatening their family and friends as a way to upset them. There have been plenty of cases of celebrities going to court to prevent someone from cyber-stalking or cyber-harassing them – but it also happens to people who aren’t famous. If someone keeps contacting an individual who doesn’t want to hear from them, whether it’s in person or by email or on social media, it can be highly traumatic.
- What can you do if you are, or someone you know is, experiencing online harassment? Childnet International has some FAQs and advice, and you can also get in contact with the Childline helpline at any time on (UK) 0800 1111 or at www.childline.org.uk.
- Spread of ‘fake news’ and misinformation
- You’ve probably heard former US President Donald Trump complaining about 'fake news' – but what is it? Well, it’s very easy to start a rumour online and then have it picked up as fact by someone else – you’ve probably seen an April Fool reported as if it actually happened. So just imagine this on a bigger scale – and happening deliberately. Someone can invent a story, or exaggerate the facts, and because of the speed of social media and online news, it spreads very quickly as people don’t check how true things are. The lack of rules about advertising online also means it’s sometimes not possible to tell whether something is news or just a paid advert. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have all tried to crack down on this. For example, they have asked celebrities to make it clear when they’re advertising something they’ve been paid to write about. On a bigger scale, Facebook has also banned any adverts about politics unless the person paying for it lives in the country they’re posting about – that’s intended to stop people from other countries interfering in elections to pick a government (read more). However, many people believe that there's still more that social media companies could be doing to combat fake news.
- This video from Wired explains how fake news can be used to make a profit, and some of the ways that social media networks and advertisers are trying to put a stop to it:
- Favouring a limited number of languages and cultural forms
- English is still the dominant language in cyberspace. In the first years of the Internet, estimates suggested that more than three-quarters of the content online was written in English – so if you didn’t speak it or read it, you were essentially blocked from accessing lots of information… not to mention massively multi-player online role playing games (MMPORGs)! That is changing slowly – English now makes up a smaller proportion of online content, but a large proportion of websites are still dominated by a small group of mostly European languages (read more). And if you’re on Twitter, around 38% of the tweets are in English (source) – but most people only follow and retweet those who speak the same language as them. In theory, social media offers us a chance to have conversations with people across the world; in practice, we just talk to other people like ourselves.
How does the Internet enhance personal freedom?
So the Internet can be a scary place... but it can also provide people with freedoms and opportunities that would previously have been impossible. Here are five ways in which the Internet improves our ability to learn, share, manage our money, take part in politics and more...
- Online learning opportunities
Before the Internet, if you wanted to learn a skill or study a new subject your options were often limited – you could enrol in a school or university course, sign up for evening classes or try to teach yourself from a textbook. But if those resources weren’t available in your local area, or if financial barriers prevented you from accessing them, it was very difficult to learn something new. With the advent of the Internet, there are now lots of different ways to learn for free, from university-based Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) where anyone can sign up to view lectures to YouTube channels such as Crash Course and the Idea Channel... and of course, you wouldn't be reading this without Oxplore!
However, online learning isn’t a perfect solution – for example, the fact that Wikipedia is open to be edited by anyone has often caused concern about the accuracy of its content, while male editors and editors from North America and Europe are over-represented which some people say has led to gender bias and a lack of articles on non-white history.
Oxford’s Tebello Qhotsokoane also points out some problems with MOOCs in the video clip below: while the content studied by online students might be the same as that covered in on-campus courses, the social prestige associated with a face-to-face degree is still significantly higher, leading to different employment outcomes for face-to-face and online students.
- Keeping an eye on politics
The Internet has brought lots of new ways to communicate and connect with our friends and family via social media, email, messaging and even video calling platforms like Skype and Google Hangouts. But did you know that it has also enabled communications that have given rise to political movements, allowed people to safely monitor elections and given people more information about their representatives?
One recent major political movement was the Arab Spring in 2010-2011, a series of uprisings in majority-Muslim countries in which people protested for democracy. It resulted in changes to government in countries such as Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Some analysts have suggested that the protests spread especially quickly because people were inspired by images that they saw on social media, and information about events was able to spread quickly from person to person. For example, a report produced by the Dubai School of Government in 2011 showed that 9 out of 10 Egyptians used Facebook and other social media sources as a main source of news and information during the protests. Read more
However, it’s worth noting that while the protests attracted worldwide attention, in many cases they weren’t necessarily successful in achieving their aims. Read more
In Kenya, the online reporting tool Ushahidi was created to monitor violence following the 2007-2008 presidential election which was being under-reported by the government, police and media. By collecting reports of violent incidents from witnesses all around Kenya, the app was able to document what was really going on, and to allow emergency service workers and other helpers to identify which areas needed aid. Ushahidi has since been used in the Haiti earthquake of 2010, the BP oil spill of 2010 and the Japanese earthquake and tsunami of 2011. Read more
On a more local level, in 2004 the UK charity mySociety founded the website They Work For You, which allows anyone in the UK to enter their postcode and be connected instantly with a wide range of information about their local Member of Parliament and how they have voted on various topics as well as advice on how to contact them about important issues and even information on their expense claims!
Of course, the Internet can also give rise to the spread of misinformation – see “How does the Internet cause global conflict and suffering?” above for more details.
- Increased access to financial services
Around the world, there are still more than 2 billion adults, many living in poverty, who use only cash to manage their day-to-day finances. This is because they don’t have access to facilities like reliable banking, credit cards, insurance or electronic cash transfers. Internet-based money systems can enable these people to access more financial services at a lower cost, while also reducing their risk of losing physical cash or having it stolen.
This video from the Consultative Group to Assist the Poor explains how digital finance services are helping people run businesses and support their families in Bangladesh, Kenya and Ghana:
- The Internet has also enabled a new generation of microcredit organisations – non-profit groups which allow people to sign up to lend small amounts of money to people who are excluded from traditional bank loans. This allows the borrowers to set up businesses, purchase livestock or pay for training and studies. Two well-known platforms for this are Kiva and Zidisha.
- Of course, it’s important to be aware that there are still risks associated with these financial services – for example, while users have less risk of losing physical cash, they become vulnerable to hacking and digital theft instead, while people who are not used to borrowing money might not be aware of the need to be mindful of their credit history and avoid defaulting or failing to repay loans.
- Freedom to share and promote music and art
In the pre-Internet days, the only way to find out if you liked a new band before buying their music was to turn on the radio and wait to see if a DJ felt like playing any of their songs that day. To discover new authors, you needed to visit the library or browse in a bookshop (where some of the Oxplore team remember getting told off for reading without buying!), and to show off your painting or photography you’d need to find a gallery and convince them to display your work.
All that has changed with the ability to stream songs, download sample chapters of ebooks, view artworks online and much more. Many of today’s best-selling musicians were discovered or got their start on YouTube, including Carly Rae Jepsen, Shawn Mendes and even Ed Sheeran! Similarly, lots of authors got their start by writing fanfiction on the Internet, including E.L. James, Cassandra Clare and Andy Weir (author of the novel which became the film The Martian).
The rapper Akala points out that having direct access to music fans via the Internet has made an especially big difference to Afro-Caribbean artists’ ability to market their work in his book Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire. He argues that “[s]cores of rappers who, if born just a decade earlier, would have been told... “we don’t know how to market you” and thus relegated to the dustbin, now have viable solo touring careers, with the biggest ones selling out the nation’s largest arenas”.
Of course, the freedom to share music and art also brings difficulties – online streaming and digital piracy have had a negative impact on artists’ ability to make money from their work. This panel discussion from Vice has some details:
- Reselling and the sharing economy
- zhou shuai
- The rise of the “sharing economy” made possible by apps such as Uber and AirBnB, as well as shareable bike schemes enable people to make better use of scarce and expensive resources such as vehicles and houses by reducing the time items sit around unused. Similarly, reselling and giveaway sites like eBay and Freecycle connect people who have unwanted items with people who might want to buy them, preventing both waste from items being thrown away and the environmental cost of producing new items. In the UK, there’s even an app called Foodcloud which allows supermarkets to list their unsold food so that local charities can distribute it!
- As usual though, there can be a downside to these freedoms – there have been reports of cities becoming dangerously crowded with unwanted bike scheme bikes (read more), and holiday rental platforms such as AirBnB have been criticised for being less well-regulated than traditional hotels – but also so profitable that landlords are now choosing to use their properties as AirBnBs rather than providing homes for locals (read more)
What do you think? Do the new freedoms provided by the Internet outweigh the risks?
Did you know?
In 2017, adults reported that they spent an average 3.4 hours per day online, up from 1.7 hours in 2007! (source)
What are the benefits and disadvantages of using the internet?
We asked four Oxford students, Rebecca, Shona, Chris and Mick, about what they felt was good and bad about using the Internet.
Can the Internet help to include groups of people who have historically been excluded?
Robot avatars could provide new opportunities
As a teenager, inventor Yoshifuji Kentaro was unable to go to school for three years due to ill health and bullying. He wondered what it would be like to have a robot that could attend school in his place – so he began working on building one! He’s now the CEO of Ory Laboratory, which builds avatar robots for use by people with serious disabilities that limit their ability to move around or leave the house.
In November 2018, the robots were given a trial at a pop-up café in Akasaka, Japan where they assisted people living with motor neurone disease and spinal injuries to act as waiters. From their beds at home, the waiters drove the robots around the café providing people with drinks and conversation. Some people were able to use their hands to control the robots, while others used just their eye movements. You can see a video of them working below:
It is hoped that by 2020, the café will become a permanent fixture, and that as technology improves the robots will be able to help people do more sophisticated work. Read more
People from marginalised groups may have limited access
Researchers in Germany and Switzerland were looking at minority ethnic groups in different countries, such as Muslims in Nepal, Albanians in Serbia and indigenous people in Peru. They wanted to find out how many people from these groups were using the Internet, so they measured packets going through an Internet service provider in Switzerland (see “What is the Internet exactly?”), then matched them to their location of origin. They found that the places where people from marginalised minority groups lived tended to have access to fewer Internet connections: overall people from these groups had 30% less Internet connectivity than others in their own countries. This could mean that people from these groups are less likely to have their voices heard in online discussions and have less access to information, which could make them less able to stand up for their rights and interests. Read more
Microvolunteering apps allow people to give and get help
Hans Jørgen Wiberg is a Danish furniture-maker who is partially sighted. He realised that many blind or visually-impaired people would benefit from getting a little help from sighted people now and then to use things that weren’t designed to be accessible to them – like video screen displays at train stations or printed expiry dates on milk cartons! After chatting with a friend, who told him that they often used video calls with friends or family to solve this problem, Hans realised that it would be great for visually-impaired people to have a video-chat helper available at all times, not just when family and friends were able to pick up the phone! So he created “Be My Eyes”, an app that allows sighted people to volunteer to take video calls from visually impaired people. The person using the app holds the phone up to whatever they can’t see, and the volunteer describes what’s in the image. Read more
Rural communities miss out on high-speed Internet
A study from Aberdeen University in Scotland points out that some people lack access to the Internet because of geographical barriers: if broadband cables or wireless signals can’t reach a particular area, how can people living there access good-quality Internet? In 2014, the Office for National Statistics estimated that 28% of rural areas in the UK are ‘not spots’ where homes do not have adequate mobile phone signals, while 85% of urban local authority areas had access to superfast broadband compared with only 45.6% of rural ones. This has knock-on effects for people’s ability to access government services, run businesses from rural locations, or use entertainment sites like Netflix or gaming platforms.
Why does this happen? According to the Aberdeen researchers, “in the UK digital telecommunications service providers operate in the private sector and commercial priorities mean that their infrastructure developments focus on populous areas with the largest potential number of consumers” – i.e., it’s more profitable to provide Internet services in big cities, where lots of people will want to pay for data and it only needs to travel over a relatively short distance! Read more
LGBTQ+ people have access to support and information
Many LGBTQ+ people who grew up before the Internet describe feeling very alone and isolated as young people, especially if they didn’t grow up in a big city with an LGBTQ+ population. Online initiatives such as the “It Gets Better Project” allow LGBTQ+ adults to share their stories, while social media, web forums and platforms such as YouTube allow young people to connect with others and discuss their sexuality more freely. The Internet also makes safer sex education more widely available, which is especially important for young people who might not have access to relevant sex education at home or school.
This video explains the history and goals of the It Gets Better Project:
Many older people are missing out on the benefits
Internet use among people in older age brackets has increased in recent years, but many elderly people are still missing out – a study published by Age UK in 2016 showed that while 88% of UK adults regularly use the Internet, this figure dropped to 74% for people aged 65-74 and only 39% for people aged 75+. Older women were also less likely to use the Internet than older men, and disabled people of all age groups were less likely to be Internet users. Read more
Apps and websites can help navigate cities
When negotiating city spaces – such as public transport routes, streets and public buildings – it can sometimes be very difficult for people with physical and sensory disabilities to get information about what is accessible and what is not. This is changing with the introduction of new apps which collect data from service providers (like bus and train companies), employees who carry out research, and disabled people who use the service! All this information is combined to give users a much more useful picture.
Some of our favourite city navigation apps include Wayfindr (which provides audio instructions for visually impaired people navigating public buildings), AccessAble (which provides detailed information about venues and buildings) and even the Great British Toilet Map!
Tebello Qhotsokoane (Blavatnik School of Govnerment, Oxford) talks about his experiences using Citymapper, another navigation app:
“The future is already here – it’s just not
– William Gibson, 2003
Whether it’s uploading pictures to Instagram or building a website to show off your work experience portfolio, we are all online for most of our days now.
You choose what you click on and what you upload. Right? But take a look at that link in front of you, or that advert in the sidebar. How does that website know what you were browsing for the other day? Or what you were talking about at home? Or that you’re interested in that subject?
Algorithms – programs based on certain chains of commands – use our 'cookies', or data tracks, to build up an idea of how we behave on the Internet, what we’re interested in, and what we buy. Professor Sandra Wachter, of the Oxford Internet Institute, is interested in how the use of algorithms changes our lives – both as individuals and for society as a whole.
“A calculator has all the formulae to do maths - it’s just executing a script. That’s what an algorithm does,” she says. “But the dangerous part of algorithms that I’m interested in [are] the ones that teach themselves rules.”
All about algorithms
These algorithms are given tasks and asked to sort out rules and organise data to do that. Professor Wachter gives the example of an employer telling an algorithm to shortlist ten people for a job vacancy – then the algorithm would sift through all the data about the applicants and figure out who best fits the job description.
“Algorithms see patterns that humans aren’t able to see,” she explains, “so they can be more efficient, they’re faster, maybe they’re more accurate, which can be very good for us - but at the same time because they’re so complex and we don’t really understand what is going on in that black box, we could have a problem in terms of accountability. How do I know that the algorithm is actually doing what it’s supposed to do? How can I make sure that the decisions are explainable when I don’t really know what’s going on there? How can I make sure that I’m not discriminating against certain people if the whole thing isn’t very transparent? So it’s trying to find that sweet spot, using the capability of the algorithms to make better decisions, but at the same time making sure we understand what’s going on and have some standards in place.”
That’s also what’s going on when you see particular adverts or links on your social media feeds or your online reading material.
“Facebook will be looking at the friends that you have, the groups that you join, the things that you like, the stuff that you post, and will run an algorithm to find out who you are and what your preferences are, what kind of user you are,” says Professor Wachter.
“Facebook will be looking at the friends that you have, the groups that you join, the things that you like, the stuff that you post, and will run an algorithm to find out who you are and what your preferences are, what kind of user you are,” says Professor Wachter. “Are you interested in sports? Do you like to travel? Are you interested in pets or animals? And based on those assumptions that the algorithm will make based on all that clicking behaviour, it will then try to tailor certain content to you. So if you’ve joined three different groups that have to do with animals, they might show you advertisements for pet stores, something like that - there’s an intuitive link there. Or they’ll try to rank the posts you see on social media according to your preference, so if you like for example what a certain person writes, their posts will have a higher rank.”
Making the link
Yes, you’ve made the decision to click on the links you see on that web page – but it’s the algorithms that have put the links there in the first place, making sure that you’re being shown something that you’re interested in to increase the likelihood of you engaging with it.
“The task is to make somebody click on that thing - and we know that people are more likely to click on things they think are pleasant or in accordance with their view or something they already have experience with,” says Professor Wachter.
What she thinks is possibly dangerous here, though, is living in a 'filter bubble' – only ever seeing information or topics you’re already interested in, and never seeing anything that challenges your views, or expands your ideas.
“You’re constantly being fed back the stuff that you already know, or the stuff that you already like,” she says. “Actually, one could make the argument that a well-rounded personality is somebody that knows a lot of opinions, maybe opinions that the person doesn’t agree with, but it opens up the exchange of ideas and a better understanding of the other side - sometimes having something that is not in accordance with one’s view is actually something that is very helpful.”
So do we have free choice?
It’s important for you to be aware that your web browsing can be directed in this way – and to consider using other browsers or clearing your Internet history every so often to widen the range of content you’re presented with. It’s also helpful to be cautious on the Internet – making sure that news stories are true before you share them, keeping your personal data secure, and so on – but don’t panic too much about algorithms finding out too much about you. They’re not dangerous in themselves.
“Algorithms can be useful, very positive things,” says Professor Wachter. “We can write algorithms for all kinds of purposes. It depends where they’re deployed, what the purpose is, and what safeguards you do have in place. It’s like a knife. You can use a knife to cut bread or you can use a knife to stab people. It’s really up to the individual, the company or the public sector how they use the algorithm. Algorithms themselves are neither good nor bad - it all depends how humans use them.”
How do algorithms learn?
In this video from YouTuber CGP Grey, you can find out how algorithms are 'trained' to do tasks such as recognising objects in photographs, learning to navigate roadways and even maximising our clicks and viewing time on social media:
How can we solve the problems caused by the Internet?
OK, we might have to admit that there are some ways in which the Internet isn’t so great for us… so what can we do to minimise the harm that it causes while still enjoying the many benefits?
- Regulation by law
Most people would probably agree the Internet needs some laws to govern what people can and can’t do on it – at the very least we need to prevent the Internet being used to commit serious crimes. But where should the lines be drawn, and who should be in charge of enforcing them?
For example, let’s imagine that in Country X, it’s illegal to write anything rude about the Prime Minister. Alex, a citizen of Country X, writes a website called “Why the Prime Minister is Wrong About Everything” and posts it – but they do so while on a visit to Country Y, and the website is published on a server that is also located in Y. Should Alex be subject to prosecution? What about the Internet company in Country Y who are hosting the website and serving it to readers in Country X? Would your answer be different if Alex had posted the website from inside Country X?
Immediately we can see one of the problems with using the law to regulate material on the Internet – different societies around the world place different emphasis on values like privacy and openness, economic equality and political freedom. How can we reconcile the country-specific nature of these social values with the global nature of the Internet to make an Internet that works well for everyone?
Similarly, different countries might disagree on questions like how to handle privacy (for example, GDPR laws in the UK are quite different to US privacy laws), net neutrality (whether all data streams should be prioritised equally) or how seriously to enforce copyright laws.
These are all difficult questions, and they are currently being struggled with by lawyers working in copyright law, contract law, IT law and many other legal fields around the world.
What do you think? How could we work to make laws in different countries compatible?
- Change the business models of companies that are creating problems
- In the video “The Attention Economy”, Oxford University’s James Williams discusses the way in which many digital technologies build their business around maximising the amount of time people spend on their platform – literally “selling our attention”. He argues that companies use “the treadmill of incompetence” by changing their interfaces frequently, which ensures that users are never completely in control of the technology. He also suggests that they exploit the non-rational parts of our brains to keep us clicking and scrolling (think streaks on SnapChat or endless “Up next” videos on YouTube).
Yes, we should probably all learn to be more mindful of our time and how we spend it on the Internet. But should the burden be completely on the individual to manage this? One way to avoid the Internet damaging people’s abilities to reach their goals and enjoy their lives might be to move away from the business model of “the attention economy” where platforms make their profits by working to ensure everyone spends as much time as possible on the site or app. An alternative model could involve users paying more for a service designed not to push consumers towards continuous use – then you would still get the convenience of being able to watch videos or chat to your friends, but with added control over how much time you’re spending.
What do you think? Would you pay to access services like Snapchat and YouTube if it meant they were designed to be less addictive?
- Make app terms and conditions fairer
When you download an app or use a website, have you ever scrolled through pages and pages of “Terms and Conditions” where you have to click “I Agree” before you can use the app or read the site? Finn Lützow-Holm Myrstad from the Norwegian Consumer Council recently took a look at what’s lurking above the “I Agree” tickbox on common apps. He found some worrying things, including a dating app that helps itself to your Facebook photos and a talking doll that could collect your family’s private conversations for targeted advertising.
Maybe people should just be sensible and make sure they read all the terms and conditions before activating an app? But as Myrstad points out, that could be an unrealistic expectation: as an experiment, he and his team printed out all the terms and conditions from all the apps on an average phone and found out that it took more than 30 hours of reading to get through them all – longer than it takes to watch every single Harry Potter film back to back! In addition to the the time it would take to read all this text, there's also the fact that some terms and conditions are written in language that a person with no background in law might struggle to understand.
Rather than putting the burden of responsibility on the consumer, Myrstad argues that we should force companies to give their terms and conditions in shorter, more understandable language. Do you agree?
- Teach Internet safety and consent - and not just to young people!
- Dmitry Ratushny
- You might have had sessions in school about the importance of keeping yourself safe online, following the law and respecting your friends’ privacy when they don’t want their photos tagged or posted. If you haven’t, or if you’d like more information, Childnet and the UK Safer Internet Centre are two great places to start for quizzes, videos and tips!
- But what about adults, particularly older adults who weren’t at school when the Internet first became widespread? Who teaches them about safety, privacy and consent? Well, in some cases that might be a problem, as we saw recently with the case of Gwyneth Paltrow, who was called out on Twitter by her daughter, Apple Martin, for posting a picture of Apple without her consent.
- And this definitely isn’t a problem just for celebrities – a study by Parentzone showed that the average parent has shared more than 1500 photos of their child online by his or her fifth birthday, while a BBC poll showed that 1 in 4 children felt embarrassed, anxious or worried when their parents posted pictures of them.
- What do you think? Should there be safer Internet classes for adults as well as children? Read more
- Decentralise the Internet
In response to the domination of large Internet services such as Google and Facebook, some people have suggested ‘decentralisation’ as a potential way forward. One way to protest against companies who breach our privacy, sell our data or negatively affect the way we use our time would be not to use them at all!
People arguing for decentralisation say that we could avoid the need to use these big corporations by replacing their services with new web platforms that aren’t owned by business interests, but instead rely on peer-to-peer technology.
How would that work? Instead of hosting all the information on a single server or set of servers owned by a large corporation, a decentralised web would see small pieces of information spread across lots of computers owned by individuals, with each piece encrypted so it could only be accessed by its rightful owner. For example, rather than Facebook holding everyone’s data on its own massive servers, your social media profile might be spread out in pieces across many random people's computers. This means that no one would 'own' it, or be able to see the whole picture, except for the owner of the profile. Imagine tearing up a 100-page book and giving a page each to 100 of your friends – only you know where the pages are and what order they need to go in, so if one friend is 'hacked' or abuses your data they only have one page of the book without context, rather than the whole volume. This is made possible in part by blockchain technology, which allows accurate public recording of who owns what information – this video explains in more detail.
As this article by Aston University’s Edina Harbinja and the University of Portsmouth’s Vasileios Karagiannopoulos points out, a decentralised Internet also poses some risks, and wouldn’t necessarily do away with power imbalances on the Internet.
- Use human-centred design
Human-centred design is the general philosophy of placing your end user as the centre of your thinking when you’re making a product, whether that’s a phone or an app. It consists of many principles, including meeting people’s real needs, focusing on improving their overall experience, and working with feedback submitted by users. For example, in the "attention economy" scenario discussed above, creating a social media site that’s engineered to ensure people spend the maximum amount of time on it might fulfil the site creators’ needs – to get the most airtime so they can sell the most advertising – but is it truly fulfilling the needs of the users?
Of course, there’s an extra question to be asked here – which humans are being prioritised when we think about human-centred design? Earlier in this Big Question, Tebello Qhotsokoane pointed out the importance of considering disabled users when creating a city mapping app. Another problem was pointed out in 2017, when a viral video of an automatic soap dispenser whose sensor recognised light-skinned hands but not dark-skinned ones showed the danger of not taking a wide range of users into account when designing products.
Recently, Oxford graduate Caroline Criado-Perez has written a book about the ways in which women are sometimes excluded or ignored during product design, creating problems like smartphones that are too big for most adult women to hold in one hand and speech recognition software that is 70% more likely to understand male voices. Read more
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