What We Talk About When We Talk About the Internet

What we think of as the internet has been under assault for years, perhaps even more than a decade, and to be honest, the nature of the assault has been vastly brushed over because for the longest time, the internet was place for a few kinds of information we could afford to not take seriously. Stuff like cats battling it out with lightsabers, lists of every cultural and literary appropriation of the phrase ‘bad boys’, random meme generators, quick checks of whats-her-face in that movie, and hundreds of other bits of uselessness have become such a staple of two generations that it’s gobbled up the two before it (aka the “my mom is on Facebook” and “my grandpa tweets” phenomena) and has eaten its way into all the others that are up-and-coming. 

It’s been a sick, fun ride that’s made a handful of people very, very, very rich. It’s also been a host of other things that aren’t that great. The internet has devastated mom-n-pop shops of all kinds (bookstores, video stores, copy shops). The internet has shredded most traditional media. Where Americans sat and watched the 5, 6, and 11’o clock news for basically 50 years, now most Americans get their news in fragments, sped-read across multiple sources. The veracity and integrity of “the media”—and let’s not get carried away here, the old model sucked and was either too liberal or too conservative (depending on who you talked to), but there were still standbys and a few names folks felt they could trust. This is almost all gone now. In another four years, or eight years, news, as we know it today, will be gone. This isn’t an alt-rite thing, this isn’t a Trump thing, this is what happens when there is a cultural shift in the way people relate to technology and each other in the same time period. The old systems don’t survive, they sort of adapt, cling, stagger, droop, and eventually die. Slowly. Think horses to cars; acoustic to electric; landline to cellular.

Since the early days of the world wide web, AOL, news groups and the like, the idea of being anonymous has been appealing and the fear of loosing that anonymity has shaped most of the arguments over the internet since. For a while it was cookies, web sites set little files on your computer called cookies that tracked your habits, remembered your preferences and this freaked folks out. Then it was less than 1kb invisible images that couldn’t be blocked like cookies could. And later “browser profiles”, how your browser is configured leaves a footprint that can be tracked across the internet. Groups like the EFF work to keep these things private so folks can continue to have believe they have privacy (Snowden taught us better). 

In the years leading to where we find ourselves today, news channels, newspapers, and urban legends would conjure the almost monthly story on the ‘evils of the internet’ with sensationalist headlines: Internet Safety for ChildrenHow Kids Fool Their Parents on Social NetworksRising Number of Kids Exposed to Online PornThe Undercover Parent, etc. All of these stories focus on the need for children to “understand the dangers” and suggestion some sort of parental supervision. This is where the dialog end for nearly everyone, if they bothered to start it at all. Yes, children are at risk, yes parents should monitor their children’s online behavior to the point of using spyware because it’s the responsible thing to do.

We don’t talk enough about how everyone must be vigilant, how everyone should deal with cyberbullying, how families should keep an online eye on each other, much like they would if a family member were crossing the street. It’s that basic, but it’s also worse than that basic example. 

For every company with an internet platform which exists to coral folks into groups and push ads in front of them or to harvest everything online keystroke for meta-data and then sell that information, millions of people willingly give up their most precious information: their address, their phone number, their status, their age, their income, etc. Companies are not responsible for the safeguarding of that information. If they loose it, you loose your account. If they get hacked, you loose your account (and a lot more if your password was 123456gg). Companies are not libel for not protecting your precious information. If you had a Yahoo! account anytime in the last 10 years, all of that data is being trafficked on the internet. If your Yahoo password was used for another account, that information is also being trafficked on the internet. The CNN article is a fucking joke of victim blaming:

Use different passwords for all online accounts
Beware of emails asking for more information
Block access to your credit report

They mention some of the fault is on Yahoo!:

Companies need to step up security measures to protect themselves not only against hacking, but also against the aftereffects of hacking like credential stuffing attacks … “The trust that your users have in you is directly tied to the level of security they expect … If you don’t have confidence [in Yahoo] in the future, that’s a personal decision people need to make …

Yahoo! rejected the repeated advice of their own security staff which is why they’re an easy target for this class-action lawsuit. There is no law and it’s not common policy for companies to detail what happens in case of a breach to your data or what (fi any) responsibility they have to protect that information. This is one of the most fucked up and least talked about things about the internet today.

This exposure, this complete disregard for privacy in a constant race to fatten the wallets of a few isn’t as nasty as the internet has become.

The worst of the internet is driven by three things laid out above (perhaps indirectly, so): money, privacy, lack of responsibility. To say that we, the users of the internet, are wholly in charge of those three things is what the Flim-Flam Man says with his wagon of broken trinkets as he blows through town. The suggestion that internet consumers users can walk off of a platform like Yahoo! to something else to show their displeasure is about as helpful as suggesting a family pick up and move house because the faucet water is toxic (hello Flint critics)—it has no basis in reality. One doesn’t just pull 50GB of photography, thousands of followers, and move to another Flickr. Media consolidation has had that ill effect on the internet too, just as much as not actually being in possession of those thousands of followers has had an ill effect (e.g. no client / benefactors list to move; just like no other house to move to when your water is poisoning you). 

People are products of the web pages they log into in any equation where the company behind that page draws a single penny of profit from the existence of that person’s account. 

These companies don’t get (not yet) that they have to protect their product.

This means policing your platform. Companies should start by taking a stronger position on hate speech, then work down from there by employing well-train, human readers (and not algorithms) to sort things out. 

This means not carving your platform into silos and attempting to milk coin from everyone. Companies should start by keeping everyone in the same pool, let users decide who they do and do not want to listen to or talk with.

This means, and some aren’t going to like this, striping away the privacy. Companies should start by forcing users to use their legal name—Facebook has already started this, Twitter shoulda started long ago.

This means protecting user data like IP, on a secure server, locked up, with limited access. Companies should have been compelled by law to do this from the beginning, and this is unlikely to become law under the Trump administration—watch the Yahoo! class action lawsuit; also watch the Verizon / Yahoo! deal, the outcome of those things will determine what happens next.

This means separating freedom of speech from harassment (from “having fun” to criminal). Real, legal names go a long way here. There’re good reasons and background to support this move, read: And Then the Breitbart Lynch Mob Came for MeLeslie Jones Twitter Racism; Gamergate; How the Alt-Rite Influenced Trump Supporters’ Language on Facebook (“a large-scale analysis of 8,215,332 comments from 1,734,738 different accounts” … accounts, not people); Amid the Chaos in Berkeley, a Grinning Face, Covered in Blood (the nefarious case of Eddy Brock).


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