My new book, the Internet, Warts and All was published in August. The subtitle – Free Speech, Privacy and Truth – gives and indication of its subject matter and scope: this is a wide-ranging, broad-brush book covering a great variety of different subjects, from some of the theoretical background to free speech, privacy and truth to specific subjects – there’s a chapter on surveillance, another on trolling, and one whose main subject is fake news.
The idea for the book originally came to an extent out of frustration: why are governments so bad at dealing with the internet? Why are their laws so often counterproductive, their policies incoherent, and their politicians’ speeches so full of rubbish? Why is it so difficult for people to see the consequences of their ideas – things like ‘real names’ policies or demanding back-doors for encryption? Why do they think it would be easy for tech companies to ‘deal’ with trolls if only they put enough effort into it? It isn’t only governments of course – the media, academia and the technology industry itself is often just as guilty.
The Internet, Warts and All attempts to cut through some of this. The basic premise is that we need to be better at seeing the bigger picture – and understanding that the messy, flawed, confusing and paradoxical nature of the internet is not something that can be ‘sorted out’ by more law or more effort. It’s part of how things work. It’s a strength of the internet, not a weakness.
The Internet, Warts and All is to a great extent intended as a ‘myth-busting’ book – many of the chapters take common assumptions about their subjects head on, from broad ideas like the permanence of material on the net and the ‘balance’ to be found between privacy and security (spoiler: it’s not a balance) to specifics such as the ‘organic’ or ‘neutral’ nature of Google search or Facebook’s ‘platform’.
Some of the examples used may be quite familiar – laws like the Investigatory Powers Act, the trolling tale of GamerGate, the farrago that was the NHS’s care.data – others less so, such as the mess that was Samaritans Radar and the tragic story of Brenda Leyland. They will, however, demonstrate that what is being discussed in the book isn’t just academic theory, but an observation of the reality of the internet as it is, and something about why that matters.
By its nature, The Internet, Warts and All, is very broad-brush, but it points to some of the excellent work done by academics in particular areas – researching the book has led me to read and appreciate the work of many great scholars even more.
The book is published by Cambridge University Press, and can be found here.
This post was originally published on Paul Bernal’s Blog and is reproduced with permission and thanks.