It’s abundantly clear that the internet has changed the world, making many aspects of our work and personal lives easier, healthier, more productive and satisfying. In fact, the internet is an essential part of daily life and an engine for economic growth around the world.
But these benefits come with drawbacks. They range from having our preferences tracked and used for profit, to distributing falsehoods that can influence the outcomes of elections, and, in the very worst cases, the exploitation of children and adults.
The question of whether a connected world is really a better world is very timely, especially in light of ongoing security and privacy breaches, and it’s time to give it a closer look.
The unregulated internet
In a very real sense, we live in the Wild West of the internet. From a legal perspective, the internet is almost totally unregulated. Perhaps more importantly, the effects of the internet on society are hardly understood — very few people grasp the big picture. As a society, we are all learning about the impact of the internet as we go along.
Here’s one example of this ongoing learning: I subscribe to a streaming video service that now knows my tastes and recommends movies that fit my tastes. Initially, this seemed like a great feature. But I began to realize that the consequence of following the recommendations was that I was becoming more entrenched in my own bubble. What I thought was enrichment turned into lack of variety and made me monotonous.
A similar example we are learning more about is the fact that social media on the internet creates bubbles, where like-minded people meet, interact and agree emphatically with each other. Our perceptions become our realities. Our critical thinking skills begin to erode, even about our own ideas, because we prefer to hang out in our bubble of “like minds.” What seemed like a good idea at the beginning has value flipped and become negative.
Social media also sells information it “knows” about us for targeted advertising. This seems like a positive thing, as now we see only ads that influence us to buy products and services we care about. But where is line between influence and manipulation?
Advertising tries to influence our behavior. We are used to that and have even built up a certain resistance to it.
However, there is a dark side of influence — manipulation — that happens when there is an imbalance in information between two parties, and one party exploits that imbalance to take advantage of the other.
Manipulation is nothing new, but the internet has made it more insidious. If data from social media enables entities to know our weaknesses, uncertainties and vulnerabilities, they can profit by selling this knowledge to advertisers. The imbalance of information is exploited by applying big data and artificial intelligence to the information we reveal about ourselves.
Manipulative advertising can be subtle, like phishing, or less subtle, like data theft. When the information of large groups of people is obtained, and those groups are then bombarded with very specific targeted messages, it can have huge impacts. As we now know, it can tilt the outcomes of elections.
The need for a code of conduct
The internet is a new frontier, with no law and order yet established. Invented by great minds and created by great engineers, certainly. But as a society, we are still in the early stages of learning about the impacts on our daily lives. And we still have a long way to go to deal with the consequences.
I recently wrote an email to a friend about a particular subject — buying a certain brand of car — and assumed that the email was completely private. However, to my surprise, that same day I received an advertisement on social media about that brand, and a deal especially for me. Coincidence?
In the physical world, the privacy of correspondence has been protected for centuries. Tampering with the mail is considered a felony crime in the U.S., for example. Why is this assumption of privacy broken when we move to writing an email and sending it over the internet?
Similarly, we know that in the physical world, our houses cannot be entered without a warrant. But if I bring in IoT devices and sensors, including cameras and microphones, can I still consider my home secure? More specifically, am I waiving all expectations of protected privacy? Can the data generated by these devices be freely used for targeted advertising? Is my voice assistant only listening when I call out the key word? Or can my personal situation now be exploited freely all the time?
Can we wait for legislation? Probably not. That’s why a code of conduct for the internet is so important.
What would an internet code of conduct include?
In the Wild West, the code of conduct was pretty straightforward: Let’s pretend we live in the civilized world and comply with the rules of the physical world as if enforcement was in place.
A code of conduct for the internet, the virtual world, should also mirror the rules of the physical world and adopt those rules without any enforcement being in place, while we wait for legislation to (maybe) catch up. I believe these three elements, each founded on the ideal of respect for one another, are key:
It seems to me that these rules will be implemented in the internet sooner or later, for the simple reason that they make sense. They have made sense in the physical world for hundreds of years, why would they not make sense in the virtual world?
Progress is not free
The internet is an amazing invention and we are dependent on it. But we must ask ourselves hard questions about our understanding of its power and impact — both the light and the dark side.
Should using something that is “free” be the same as knowingly waiving our privacy? Have we been too naïve as individuals and as a society? Are we okay with elections being manipulated? What can we do to protect ourselves? The answers may cost us some money, but maybe it’s worth it.
I was asked recently whether self-regulation or imposed legislation of the internet would stifle innovation. My first thought was that it probably would. That’s fair enough, because we have some cleaning up to do. We have gotten a little ahead of ourselves and assumed too much freedom in the Wild West of the internet without understanding the price to be paid.
But I also realized that making the internet a safe place and a fair environment is an innovation challenge in itself. So, in that sense, self-regulation or legislation does not stifle innovation at all. It steers the internet in the right direction. It is just a very important example of market feedback for engineers and innovators to develop the right products.
In my work with Qorvo, we are committed to the idea that a connected world is a better world. But this better world does not come for free. And it should not be dominated by a few large companies that are able to determine law and order as it suits them. It is something that we all must understand, believe in and fight for, to make it right. Having an internet code of conduct is a good starting point.
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