Last week, European regulators implemented sweeping privacy rules known as the General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR. While most companies fret about compliance with these new online privacy rules, we really should worry about what the rules mean for the future of the internet, and, ultimately, how they could cripple democracy’s watchdog: journalism. If you’ve been concerned about fake news and misinformation, you haven’t seen anything yet. This could be the end of the World Wide Web as we’ve known it.
We’ve already seen evidence of a splintered internet. Friday, lots of people couldn’t access news sites because several organizations, fearing compliance issues, simply blocked users with IP addresses based in the EU.
What the law does: In short, the GDPR creates more stringent rules for buying, selling and using European citizens’ personal information, and it’s the evolution of the EU’s Data Protection Directive law which, starting in 1995, intended to safeguard the personal data of everyday people as they started using the internet. The idea is “privacy by design”––which makes privacy a fundamental right and requirement from the beginning of the digital design process so that it isn’t tacked on as an afterthought once someone complains. The GDPR, despite its noble privacy intentions, will ultimately influence how information flows—or doesn’t—across the internet. It stands as one of many recent attempts by democratic governments to restrict Internet access and ban certain content, effectively splintering the world wide web into dozens of digital fiefdoms where local rules apply.
I’m not a journalist. Why should I care? The GDPR is one of many recent attempts by democratic governments to restrict internet access and ban certain content, effectively splintering the world wide web into dozens of digital fiefdoms where local rules apply. The intention is laudable: protecting privacy and allowing people a say in how their personal data is used. However, in practice, this changes the rules of the internet—not just the legal ones, but the code itself—and creates tiered access. Some people, like Americans, will see everything, even if their content is restricted in GDPR nations. Meanwhile, people in the E.U. will find themselves grappling with notification screens and consent forms everywhere they click, which will make their digital experiences more frustrating and cumbersome. E.U. member states are implementing local GDPR laws differently, posing a daunting challenge for any organization hoping to do business worldwide.
Futurist and the Future Today Institute’s founder Amy Webb wrote an extensive analysis about the future of the GDPR, the internet, and the implications for democracy in the NiemanReports. You can access the EU’s GDPR portal here.
The GDPR was intended to harmonize E.U. privacy rules, but it could cause the reverse. The more disparate and complex the global internet rules become, the harder they will be to enforce. Misinformation could become easier to spread than to curtail. In the near-future, it’s possible that the strictest rules, perhaps even from an authoritarian country, could become the new standard.
News publishers aren’t the primary target of the GDPR, but in the digital realm, attention is currency, and newsrooms rely on data for revenue. Both platforms and news organizations use personal data in innumerable ways, which include monitoring the articles you read, matching your search preferences to articles, retargeting you with advertisements as you hop from site to site, tracking your newsletter opens and clicks on links, analyzing social media to predict which news stories are likely to be of interest next. Your data isn’t being used nefariously by quality news organizations––it’s part of a 21st century reporting and publishing process. Under the new regulations, news organizations must now get consent before collecting any data about their consumers, which likely means lots of new pop-ups screens forcing users to tick a box.
While there are some exemptions in place to protect journalists and researchers, it’s possible that investigative projects like this year’s Pulitzer Prize-winning #MeToo series, which relied on a tremendous amount of personal data, may not be seen, at least not easily, in some democratic countries that uphold the tenets of free speech. The GDPR’s “Right to Be Forgotten” rule would allow a disgruntled EU citizen to request that Google remove stories and websites from search, and it could have a profound effect on the dissemination of newsworthy information. To date, Google says its received requests to remove 2.43 million URLs since the initial right to be forgotten laws went into effect. In 2014, the EU’s Court of Justice ordered Google and other search engines to delist results if the information is “inadequate, irrelevant or excessive”––but these are subjective assessments.
Key Insight: Twenty years ago, the internet migrated from government and academia to a shared global space—a world wide web where information wanted to be free. Today, countries around the world, including Western democratic nations, are placing restrictions on how data and information flows. Ideas about how our global information superhighway ought to be regulated, and by whom, are diverging rapidly. This is happening just as we enter the third era of computing—artificial intelligence—which relies heavily on our data, deep learning, and the internet of things, all of which could be dramatically impacted by a splintered internet.
Examples: Splinternets affect us all, and their emergence will threaten global commerce, the markets, healthcare, travel, R&D, education and democracy alike. AII of the AI systems we want to use––digital assistants, smart speakers, autonomous cars, genomic editing, collaborative robots––will be affected, because they’re all powered by our data. People living in countries where free speech isn’t valued could find their version of the internet restricted, and themselves less informed about government, institutions, society, uncovering corruption and demanding change. This could lead to more authoritarian rule, and as a result, increased geopolitical instability.
A decade ago, countries in Europe fought ISPs and search providers such as Google and Yahoo in court and successfully banned content on a country-by-country basis. In the summer of 2017, Germany passed a law forcing social media companies to delete hate speech within 24 hours of posting, or pay fines of up to $57 million. Canada’s Supreme Court ordered Google to remove pirated content from search results. Meanwhile, China is cracking down on virtual personal networks, quashing online opposition and outright banning Facebook, Twitter and major news sites. China’s State leaders have an entirely different vision for the internet, one which reflects the official viewpoints of the government.
Mid-Futures Scenarios (2018 – 2033):
Action Meter: This is an emerging tech trend that affects everyone, regardless of your field. It’s vitally important to investigate trend, map risk and opportunity implications, and to operationalize preferred scenarios for our futures before it’s too late.
Watchlist: The European Union; the Big 9 (Alphabet, Amazon, Tencent, Alibaba, Baidu, Facebook, Microsoft, IBM, Apple); news organizations worldwide; government agencies; business leaders; legal scholars; law enforcement; technology and privacy advocates; everyday citizens.
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