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A pivotal moment: The internet is in a state of uncertainty right now - what happens next?

Things are changing, and fast. Are Ireland and the EU ready? The Good Information Project is looking into this new digital age.

Image: Alamy

LAST THURSDAY, THE market value of Facebook’s newly-renamed parent company Meta dropped by more than $220bn (over €190 billion). 

The company and its flagship social network have been central to the building of the modern internet, and more than a third of the world’s population still uses Facebook at least once a month. But despite his leading role in shaping the digital world we all live in, investors are no longer confident that Mark Zuckerberg can predict that world’s future, let alone decide it.

He’s not the only one. The online world is in a state of flux, with new technologies and social networks rising to the fore, and new challenges—both technical and socio-political—cropping up for industry leaders and everyday users alike. Are we, in Ireland and across the EU, ready for those challenges?

Artificial intelligence, virtual reality (or “the metaverse” as Zuckerberg likes to call it), blockchain and cryptocurrency: the evangelists of emerging technologies promise that they will radically transform how we live and work online, and for the better. It’s hard to evaluate such claims; wearable tech like Google Glass largely failed to live up to their hype, but the smartphone was a technological and societal revolution in ways no one could have predicted.

The latest series of innovations is no different, and even the tech’s proponents can’t see the future. A huge crypto crash, hardly the first the market has seen, wiped out $205bn of market value in January. Meta’s overinvestment in virtual reality is thought to be largely responsible for its recent market troubles, as those investments have yet to pay off. And while artificial intelligence is successfully integrated into more and more everyday technology, this frequently has unexpected outcomes and worrying privacy implications.

We don’t yet know which emerging technologies will truly be transformative, and whether those transformations will be universally good. We just know that things are changing, and fast.

Governance

Questions about rights and regulations online have been around since the dawn of the internet, but most remain unresolved. A Rubicon moment for privacy and the real-world impact of social media was the Cambridge Analytica scandal. In 2018 it was revealed that the now-defunct company was mining huge amounts of data from social networks, mostly Facebook, to allow political campaigns to create detailed psychological profiles of voters to use to persuade them.

Four years on, it doesn’t seem that we’ve got a clear answer on what tech companies should be allowed to do, or how governments should enforce the rules that do exist. The stakes are only getting higher, with social media being accused of fuelling ethnic cleansing in places including India and Myanmar via disinformation and incitement to hatred.

Our regulatory tools do not seem to have kept pace with the evolving issues. Ireland’s Data Protection Commission, responsible for much of the Big Tech regulation in Europe, has been repeatedly accused of inefficiency and leniency, and admitted to government in December it is “unfit for purpose”.

On the other hand, a bill currently being considered by the Oireachtas would put regulation of social media, broadcast media and online communication under one combined body, the Media Commission. The legislation would give the watchdog broadly-phrased rules and sweeping powers of enforcement, but critics have said the proposal is a blunt instrument which treats social networks like traditional communication methods or broadcast media, when in reality it’s not quite comparable to either.

Almost everyone agrees that how we’re regulating tech companies right now isn’t working, but no one has a universally-agreeable solution.

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Overall, the state of the internet right now is one of uncertainty; there’s a sense we’re living in a pivotal moment, but we can’t yet tell which direction that pivot will take us.

Over the next few weeks, The Good Information Project will seek to assuage some of that uncertainty by exploring the big digital questions of the day; privacy, decentralisation, regulation and much more. Don’t miss it.

We want to hear from you

The Journal launched The Good Information Project with the goal of enlisting readers to take a deep dive with us into key issues impacting Ireland right now.

You can keep up to date by signing up to The Good Information Project newsletter in the box below. If you want to join the discussion, ask questions or share your ideas on this or other topics, you can find our Facebook group here or contact us directly via WhatsApp.

This work is also co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work is the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here

About the author:

Jack Kennedy

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