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Imagining the Internet and why it matters

By Robin Mansell

Societies are benefitting in numerous ways from an open Internet, not least because of the collaborative culture it seems to favour. Increasingly, however, national and regional legislative initiatives are raising questions about how citizens’ interests in being free from monitoring of their online activities can be reconciled with the interests of the state in securing their safety, and of companies in safeguarding their revenue streams.

Legislation is being introduced to extend the responsibilities of Internet Service Providers (ISPs) with respect to communications data collection on the assumption that the result will be reduced illegal behaviour. These measures downplay the complexity of human behavior, and the norms and practices of online communities of Internet users.

The idea that technical fixes in the form of communications data capture and sophisticated data processing yields solutions to social problems is associated with a particular social imagination of technological innovation and progress. It is deeply rooted in what I call the Internet Age. This way of seeing is driven by a vision of the benefits of ever faster, more extensive and intrusive computerized information processing, using data generated by citizens’ online activities.

The UK government is consulting on a new Communications Data Bill in the summer of 2012. Characterized by some as a ‘snooper’s charter’, the government says that communications data (mobile texting or using Facebook, Twitter) must be collected to provide information for the police to protect citizens from serious criminal and terrorist threats. Ofcom, the communications regulator, is consulting on a Code under the Digital Economy Act which requires ISPs to notify Internet users if they are suspected of illegally downloading music, films, and television programmes and, with court permission, to provide the names of suspected infringers to the creative industry so that a charge of copyright infringement can be brought.

The claim is that the complexity of the open Internet requires these legislative responses, but the risk is that those seeking to evade authorities will simply work harder to do so. Safeguards and protections for citizens against wrongful charges of misbehavior are being put in place, but are governments right to be confident that the scope for error can be kept at acceptable levels? The challenge is reconciling conflicting interests when the choice is not simply between an Internet that serves the interests of the government in security or a network that respects the democratic rights of citizens.

I draw on theoretical perspectives from the social sciences, systems theory, science and technology policy, and media and communications to analyze these and related developments. In the Internet age the trend is to rely too much on technological progress and too little on social values. The consequence is that the monitoring of online behavior is being extended further and further into the private domain of citizens lives. Citizens are entitled to a world in which the benefits of digital media and information are not outweighed by the harm of increasingly intrusive incursions into their virtual and ‘real’ lives. The challenge is to imagine how governments can privilege democratic rights in the face of the seductive attraction of superfast computing and sentient software in their efforts to make citizens safer and encourage respect for copyright law.

Robin Mansell is Professor of New Media and the Internet, Department of Media and Communications, London School of Economics and Political Science, and the author of Imagining the Internet: Communication, Innovation, and Governance. Her work focuses on the social, economic, and political issues arising from new information and communication technologies, the integration of new media into society, and sources of governance effectiveness and failure. She was Head of the Media and Communications Department at the London School of Economics (2006-2009) and President of the International Association for Media and Communication Research (2004-2008).

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