Fifty years ago last week, at 10:30 on a warm night at the University of California, Los Angeles, the first email was sent. It was a decidedly local affair. A man sat in front of a teleprinter connected to an early precursor of the Internet known as Arpanet and transmitted the message “log-in” to a colleague in Palo Alto. The system crashed; all that arrived at the Stanford Research Institute, some 350 miles away, was a truncated “lo.”
–Akash Kapur, senior fellow Gov Lab, New York University
I don’t know Mr. Kapur, although I once taught at NYU where he is based. But that was a generation ago, long before he came aboard. And I am aware he is working on a book about the search for utopia. I wonder how much the Internet, and all that it has spawned, is part of that utopia?
As I’ve discussed repeatedly in other blogs, the Internet, in general, and social media, in particular, are a blessing, but a mixed blessing. Just like any other invention or technological breakthrough, the capability of the Internet and the reach of social media can help achieve great things for our fellow men and women, or they can be used by crooks, cheats, hackers, thieves, sexual predators, terrorists… This is why I’ve worked hard in recent years to create tools to draw upon the chaos of public social media in a way that allows ethical modes of monitoring the Bad Actors and making them accountable.
In his Wall Street Journal article, Kapur notes that we’ve come a long way in the half century from that terse and yet sputtering transmission. Every day more than two hundred billion emails traverse the world. And we’re hardly at a plateau.
I can’t say I was involved back in November, 1969 when that embryonic transmission occurred. But I was involved in the 1980s and 1990s, in combining my background in math and interest in music into a mission to convert analog to digital, especially in the field of digital music and film.
As for communicating on the Internet and social media, I remember when we moved from the seeming invulnerability of AOL to its virtual demise. Remember when people paid a stiff fee, more than $20 monthly (perhaps $70 in current dollars), for this unreliable connection, very slow and relying on a dial-up? That was when the giant merger occurred with Time Warner, as AOL seemed almost a monopoly. How many could foresee – and surely not the so-called Wall Street experts – that AOL’s business model was destined for extinction? That AOL would not only lose its dominance, but it would reduce its price to zero.
Mr. Kapur properly diagnoses “digital nationalism” as a threat. He correctly notes that China has pioneered what he terms the “Great Firewall” – and other nations have been inspired to pursue their own domestic networks that are, essentially, exclusionary. He references Iran’s “halal net”, North Korea’s “Kwangmyong” and Russia’s “sovereign Internet.” He reports that dozens of countries are pursuing “localization.”
Yes, I understand that nations have legitimate concerns about fraud and criminal activity. But we are talking about much more than that. In many cases, we are talking about the denial of the Internet and social media version of free speech. We are talking about stifling different opinions and dissent from government, and freedom loving people.
I’ve been involved in ways to monitor public social media to deal with predators and terrorists, without violating rights of free speech and freedom of association. If it is a choice between countries regulating, and Facebook and other social media keeping their house in order, I’ll go with the non-governmental entities. But I’d rather have a middle ground – independent private sector organizations that may be funded by Facebook and by other social media, but operate independently, without fear or favoritism.
My colleagues and I have developed a platform that can be used by social media for due diligence and also by government. It’s time we monitor the Bad Actors and prevent them from doing harm to themselves and to others. And that we identify and source not people who have different, even if controversial views, but people who are robots or foreign agents or interfering in our elections, who need to be stopped.
Just as we have moved ahead by leaps and bounds in the last fifty years from an embryonic internet, so too have the crooks and charlatans and the evil predators adapted to every new advance. It’s that that we the people demand the security of a platform that can protect us, without invading abridging our rights or invading our privacy.