June 24 2011

The Internet: A Parallel Universe Without Rules?

The standout moment at last month's eG8 summit in Paris saw Nicolas Sarkozy offer a foreboding warning that the internet must not become a 'parallel universe without rules' - only days before David Cameron had been at pains to distance himself from the idea of state regulation of the internet. But why is it that the same morality and rules of law that we defend culturally are seemingly so inapplicable to human interaction over the net? The question is one which is rapidly forcing internet moguls like Mark Zuckerberg, who also addressed the eG8 summit, straight into the ring with political leaders.

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It's clearly an issue for governments and the internet industry to consider. Responsibility for regulating the web has for too long seemed a question impossibly gargantuan, perhaps too hopelessly multifaceted to be properly addressed by heads of state. A more accessible dialogue on what law is needed in cyberspace might have prevented the abuse of its liberal merits by tabloid newspapers in privacy scandals such as the failure of Ryan Giggs' gagging order, whereby papers stake claim to a better representation of our rights as net-users than law courts do.   As with the Space Race and contested rights to Deep Sea Oil Reserves in the antarctic before it, the internet seems to lack the clear geographical or institutional boundaries which would validate an open discussion on its regulation in national or global fora.

Interestingly,  Rupert Murdoch was amongst the crowd who received Sarkozy's assertion that governments must not allow the internet to remain unchecked. Looking at British politics (almost unavoidably through the window of a Murdoch-owned medium), it is hard to argue against any regulation of the internet. Just as parliament and the English courts are sometimes made to look irrelevant by the power of Murdoch's media and the twitterati masses, Mark Zuckberg also presented the case for an entirely unregulated global space.

Zuckerberg said: "I'm happy to play any role they [the people] ask me to play… the internet is really a powerful force for giving people a voice." In fact Zuckerberg openly undermined Sarkozy's opinion througout the eG8, adding: "People tell me: 'It's great you played such a big role in the Arab spring, but it's also kind of scary because you enable all this sharing and collect information on people...But it's hard to have one without the other. You can't isolate some things you like about the internet, and control other things you don't."

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