It may seem like the debate’s already closed on whether governance can exist in online spaces, with governance clearly defeated. We’ve all heard stories of the dark web, or even crime taking place on relatively popular forums, so much so that even everyday users take part in the online air of anarchy.
On Tumblr, a formerly quite popular blogging site that has seen a surge in users following Elon Musk’s fumbling of his Twitter acquisition, many have begun to post the phrase ‘become ungovernable’ when talking about their dedicated resistance to the platform, as well as their attention or posts being monetised. A mass effort that overall has been successful with Tumblr being sold in 2013 for $1.1 Billion, but only managing $3 Million in its latest acquisition.
A lot of good has come out of this anarchist internet, particularly in social justice spheres, but as the every day and the internet become more and more intertwined it’s essential to remember that governance is not entirely about killing the fun, and regulation is often put in place to protect those in vulnerable situations and ensure equality or even equity. So where’s the balance, and even if we find it, what does it even begin to look like?
Why Regulate?: NFTs and Exploitation
The biggest argument against allowing the internet to self-regulate rather than putting in place official legal standards is exploitation. The rise and fall of NFTs over a fairly short period is a prime example of this though a wider look at Cryptocurrency as a whole is a good case study, though slightly more controversial.
The basics of the situation with NFTs is that as a new form of wealth expansion, a new resource was created out of nothing. NFT stands for Non-Fungible Token, they took the form of (infamously bad, stolen or computer generated) images or pieces of art being sold with the claim that only the person holding the NFT for the image owned it. Of course, artists had their own concerns.
Naturally, in the world of piracy, that claim fell apart near instantaneously. A simple “right-click + save image” gave any user the same usability of the digital image, but those in the NFT trade claimed it was more than that.
NFTs were backed by the blockchain, a convoluted piece of code used in most cryptocurrencies that allowed for a unique ‘token’ to be made which could be ascribed to a single user on the chain. This vague idea of ownership given by the token was really what users were actually trading, the actual image was merely a representation.
For those desperate enough to believe that this was the new frontier of investment, they sunk life savings into these tokens, and for those with capital to spend it was easier to trade NFTs to themself in order to inflate their value.
When the market crashed, notably helped along by one programmer figuring out how to copy’ the ‘non-fungible’ tokens, it left those in the most vulnerable positions with nothing, and with no regulation of the blockchain being a huge part of the marketing around crypto, there was no one to turn to when the whole situation was revealed as basically a scam.
Self Regulation: The Good, The Bad, The Undefined
As it stands now, the internet is mainly held together with international Public Policy. Public Policy is the self-imposed underlying rules to any community, now in the real world this can affect things like how laws are enforced, for example, anti-drag queen laws being understood to be about targeting transgender individuals rather than policing solely performance art, and how a community engages with itself.
But online, Public Policy is the only policy which is why many sectors are now looking for people trained in it to help them engage with online spaces, whether that be a diploma earnt in person or a graduate diploma in public policy online.
Without a true legal system, this public opinion as the law makes most of our larger policing decisions online, with the final say given to platforms that are held accountable by their user base though sometimes it doesn’t feel that way.
This isn’t new to Web 2.0, John Perry Barlow released a declaration in 1996 regarding the internet and its ungovernability and while the language can be a tad dramatic, a lot of the viewpoints hold strong today. There was a focus on self-regulating spaces, for example:
“I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us. You have no moral right to rule us nor do you possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear.”
Which sounds nice, utopian even, but the reality of an entirely self-regulating space is becoming apparent. There’s an old example, if you allow both Nazis and Jewish people into your bar, you’re quickly going to find out you own a Nazi bar.
Without wider regulation there are very few ways for those in minority groups to protect themselves from larger cohorts targeting them, currently, most protections boil down to as little as anti-bullying codes of conduct set forth by the platforms people are interacting on with actual governments lagging behind technological advancements.
It also leaves individual victims with very few places to look to for justice, like in cases of revenge porn. And this is all before involving the purely business side of the internet that is rapidly developing; from infringements on workers’ rights enabled by work from home or the ‘always on call’ phenomenon, as well as financial opportunities for laundering and tax dodging.
Self-regulation is an admirable goal but to suggest it’s enough while looking at the reality of online life currently, it’s simply unrealistic.
So, What Do We Do?
Well, it’s a developing effort, understanding what the internet actually is and how it works is a good first step. The hardware that goes into jumping online as well as the software and code underneath the top layer of the content we actually interact with can help us find solutions.
Lawrence Lessig’s phrase “code is law” is a great jump point, especially with our more centralised network, the code on which sites run dictates what its users are capable of within those spaces, and instant tagging of sensitive content is a great step towards making online spaces safer, though the focus will need to be shifted away from making sites advertiser-friendly and towards actual safety concerns if much is to come of it.
To agree with Barlow for a second. “Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. You have neither solicited nor received ours. We did not invite you. You do not know us, nor do you know our world.” As it stands, attempts to govern the internet are failing because we are failing to meet the web on its own terms. The spirit of a truly free internet has opened doors for community and justice that simply haven’t been available before and the wider society being protective of that makes complete sense.
Any regulation or governance that is going to be successful online needs to be done with the consent of the internet, and that may not be impossible to achieve, but until those online can trust that those attempting to govern them do so for the wellbeing of truly all involved it will continue to be an uphill battle, and asking those whose only outlet to find safety, community and an unprecedented basis of information to let that go for an unfounded concept of ‘order’ is never going to work.
Any form of governance is going to have to be in place to protect the individuals at risk, not support those in power. It’s truly amazing to see that the internet really has a chance to demand rather than request fair governance. So delete your advertiser profile, use a VPN, crawl through every corner of the internet you want to, and until it can be done fairly?
Chris Pritchard is an Australian freelance writer with an emphasis on politics and video game analysis with a background in both design and fashion.