Law in the Internet Society

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AlexPadillaFirstEssay 1 - 08 Oct 2020 - Main.AlexPadilla
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Framing What Ails Us and the Doctor's Order

-- By AlexPadilla - 08 Oct 2020

Today’s debate around the ethical and practical implications of big data largely occurs along the fringes of the masses. Some would counter by pointing to recent pieces available on streaming platforms such as Netflix but this argument ignores that availability does not solve the issue of interested self-selection. Such availability is analogous to the viewership of long-established news channels such as Fox, MSNBC, and CNN. The question then becomes how to move the debate from educated circles concerned with the issue to the general public with the increased possibility for legislation and regulation.

Mass Addiction on a Social Scale

The majority of those opposed to the collection and utilization of user data are currently attempting to capture the attention of the very users currently being exploited and manipulated. The folly–and likely outcome–of this method was first identified by the ancient Greeks in Plato’s allegory of the cave. The messengers attempting to bring light to this issue are likely to be ignored, avoided as conspiracist technophobes, or worse condemned, hopefully short of murder. Even more analogous is the good Samaritan who attempts to explain the dangers of opioid drug abuse. The likely result is not that the drug user, for that is what a social media user is, quits as a result of discovering the true horror of such use. The likely outcome is that drug user is either already aware and living with the horrible consequences of their addiction or is too overwhelmed by their addiction to fully appreciate those consequences. Once understood from this point of view, the flaw in the current approach to advocacy is obvious, one cannot expect those in the throes of their addiction to immediately change their ways on the insistence of a stranger.

Often with addiction, an individual’s actions which result in harm to oneself are less effective motivators for change than actions which cause harm to others. Changes are often especially swift when one’s actions harm a person an individual has a close affinity to. All of this is to say that by viewing a single State, say the United States or the United Kingdom, as an individual, it is easy to understand that a gap exists between the country’s understanding of the ill effects of social media and the desire to actually resolve those effects. Considering that the sheer magnitude of the revelations made over the past four years–from Cambridge Analytica to Russian and Chinese attempts to interfere in a United States election–has elicited little to no response from the public at large, one would hardly be faulted for thinking these populations are in the throes of a terrible addiction. Moreover, one would naturally be expected to question what exactly it would take for these States to address the habits which threaten the very nature of their existence.

A Jolt of Reality

With the increased expansion of social media’ reach–and its demonstrated effectiveness in disturbing domestic populations–it is no surprise that other actors have utilized proven tactics in other countries. One such example is the hacking of the Qatari News Agency website in order to disseminate false statements attributed to the Emir of Qatar, and the subsequent hacking of the Bahraini foreign minister’s twitter account in order to disseminate misinformation. The result was a diplomatic crisis which saw four middle eastern countries break ties with Qatar resulting in its effective isolation from the rest of the world. The fact that the crisis continues to this day is likely to encourage similar actions by malevolent actors in the future. This incident demonstrates that a well-placed dissemination of misinformation has the capability of souring relations in regions with historically tense relations and quite possibly poses the danger of outright conflict.

One issue of historical clout in the American zeitgeist is the realm of national security. Any potential for an outbreak of conflict in regions vital to American national security interests have the potential to capture the attention of the masses. The use of internet technologies and social media misinformation in the 2016 election and the Qatari diplomatic crises demonstrates that these platforms are effective at disturbing domestic populations and inter-state relations. One could easily recognize the potential for bad actors–with interests in regions riddled with historic strife–utilizing these technologies to manipulate the domestic populations to the point of no return. For example, a malicious actor could disseminate misinformation in Indian and Pakistan, or any number of middle eastern countries and Israel. The goal would be to radicalize the populations–much as it has tribalized American politics–exacerbating existing hostile positions towards the rival state. With more anti-rival governments, the tension between the rival states increases and slowly begins a precipitous decline in relations resulting in full blown conflict. Such a conflict, in a region of strategic importance to the United States, may be sufficient to finally awaken the domestic population to the need to legislate and regulate these technologies.

All of this is to say that the convenience of these technologies is their strength, just as the convenience of modern energy has overcome the need to address global climate change. As the issue of global climate change has demonstrated, overcoming this country’s addiction to social media will take more than simple awareness of the devastating effects and possible destruction these technologies pose. The previous four years have demonstrated that outrageous effects are simply not enough, that unacceptable effects will need to be experienced before solutions are seriously considered. The question is, how long will it take to experience such an effect, and will such solutions still be viable once they occur.

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Revision 1r1 - 08 Oct 2020 - 00:04:27 - AlexPadilla
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