Patrick Harvie: Positives of internet under threat

Online shopping has now become the norm. Picture: TSPL
Online shopping has now become the norm. Picture: TSPL
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THERE is a positive potential of the internet that is currently under threat writes Patrick Harvie

It’s easy to be wowed by the latest gadget or online innovation, but at the same time to lose sight of the long-term changes the internet is creating in our lives. Online shopping changes our high streets, social media changes journalism and public debate, and the issues of cyber-crime affects our security at personal and global levels. But in truth the internet has only just begun.

As we grow ever more used to its daily presence in our lives and as more of the world becomes connected, networked and monitored in an “internet of things”, many of us are already living our lives in ways that would have seemed fantastical just a generation ago.

It’s easy to forget the extraordinary potential this technology offers us. We stand on the verge of a transformational change; a moment when all people across the face of our planet could have nearly instant access to the sum total of human knowledge. This idea is nothing less than revolutionary, and ours is the privileged generation which has the opportunity to turn it into a reality.

To do so will require more than just continued technological progress. Closing the gap between rich and poor countries, and the educational and wealth gaps within countries, will also be necessary to ensure network access for all.

But there are other barriers to free access to information. Closed and proprietary systems, paywalls, data discrimination, aggressive protection of intellectual property, and incomprehensibly complex terms and conditions can all present such barriers.

These considerations are not only technical; they can be political and cultural. Restrictions on freedom of speech and association, and surveillance by state and private sector players who use data and metadata to monitor and manipulate citizens: all these factors risk tipping the balance of power in our online lives, away from citizens and communities.

As our lives move online it would be odd if our behaviour didn’t change as a result, and it’s clear that those changes aren’t always for the better. The limited circles people move in online can reinforce prejudices instead of broadening the mind, and as a result abusive and rude behaviour can be normalised or intensified.

Scotland has seen some of that in the referendum debate this week, with many on each side quick to point the finger at bad behaviour from their opponents, but less keen to acknowledge it within their own ranks. That’s a dynamic that needs to change; when abuse is challenged by someone on the same side the challenge can be far more useful than when it comes from someone the perpetrator has already decided to hold in contempt.

While governments, including our own, recognise their responsibility to address the infrastructure issues, and see the economic opportunities which come from “digital participation” and “digital skills”, they are not yet adequately addressing these political and cultural aspects, by engaging with the digital rights agenda. If that failure continues, what should be a liberating, democratic and profoundly creative technology risks entrenching centralised power.

The European Parliament has achieved some successes, with defeats for intellectual property measures which would have undermined citizens’ online freedoms. There was also a recent positive vote for net neutrality, the principle that internet service providers should treat all data equally. It would be bizarre for example if the publisher of this newspaper could prevent you from buying others, or change its content or cover price depending on which paper you last read. Without net neutrality, something similar could happen online.

Governments are under immense pressure from big business to overturn these important decisions. It’s going to be vital that citizens pro- actively assert their rights in the online environment, and demand that the extraordinary potential of the internet develops in a way which protects the common good. These are debates which our society has barely begun to explore, but it’s vital that we begin to resolve them before we find that it’s too late.«

Patrick Harvie MSP is co-convenor of the Scottish Greens