The Internet has become the heart of our society. We are constantly connected to the digital world. However, despite being at the core of everything that surrounds us, it is not regulated in a way that is adequate to its relevance. The Internet is a wild space, where almost everything is possible and there are only a few things you are not allowed to do. At the same time, if you don’t control the user, you don’t control who governs it either, leaving us with a space that lacks decent regulation. Despite this, certain countries have pushed for measures aimed at the internet, such as China or Russia. However, regulating the internet directly clashes with the human right of freedom of expression, and as the United Nations Council stated in 2012, the same rights that we have offline must be respected in the digital world.
The state’s closure of China’s Internet
China intends to shut down its entire Internet network so that its inhabitants can only access domestic networks, in other words, to deprive them of the ability to access the Internet from outside the country. The objective of Xi Jinping, President of the People’s Republic of China, is to ensure that the digital world is based on the same values as the real world. In this way, he intends to regulate access to international networks so that the Chinese do not receive a foreign influence that could contradict the values that he wants to transmit in China. For example, in Article 15 of Measures on the Administration of Internet Information Services (2000), it is stated that all elements on the internet that may endanger social stability are completely prohibited (MacKinnon, Hickok, Bar & Lim, 2014).
However, limiting access to simple websites seems an unconscionable measure when it comes to human beings. Our right to be informed and at the same time to express ourselves is vital for each of us. Therefore, measures such as those that China intends to introduce are in direct conflict with our freedom as human beings.
Russia also wants to isolate from the international community
The same is happening with Russia, which intends to disconnect itself from the internet at the international level and build its own in order to establish strict control over the digital world. Beyond the technological feasibility of this action, it is the same as in the Chinese case, where its inhabitants are being deprived of the full exercise of their freedom of expression, as this would be limited to a national level, isolating them from the outside world.
The limit of regulation
Clearly, these two cases put people’s freedom of expression and information at risk. However, they allow us to ask ourselves where is the limit of an ethical regulation that helps to make the internet a better space without violating people’s rights. This should be the limit, and any regulation applied should not overstep our right to inform and express ourselves.
Given the importance of the internet in our world, it should be optimally regulated for the good of the functioning of our society. Therefore, we should abandon as soon as possible the state of lack of control that exists in most aspects of the internet, through a network of regulations that ensure the proper regulation of the space, both from the perspective of the user, as well as from that of the bodies that control the internet.
Who controls the internet?
However, to ensure that the Internet is a regulated space where users’ rights are respected, it is necessary that those who control the Internet also have regulation to match. Today we are faced with a very concentrated governance in the digital world; the companies that control the Internet are a very concrete number, which means that the entire digital world is concentrated in just a small number of people.
This lack of diversity in governance leads to a situation of monopoly that gives those in power a worrying comfort when dealing with issues such as information. From this position of privilege, they adopt the position of gatekeepers, which means that they have the ability to regulate what happens within their digital world without having to jeopardise their position.
To exemplify this, we can see this through an action that we probably do several times a day, which is cookies. Every time we log into a site or create an account on it, we agree to terms that involve an unequal exchange between us and gatekeepers that leads to a worrying situation (Mansell & Steinmueller, 2020). We give them access to our data, while they offer nothing in return, so they can conveniently store and trade our data. This is exemplified by Pasquale through two metaphors. First, that of a one-way mirror, where only one of the parties is reflected, while the other is left in the shadows. Second, he uses the term “black-box” to explain the way in which large companies operate, meaning that they operate in the shadows and function in a way that is unknown to others (2015).
Therefore, if those who govern and establish the functioning of the digital world do not have good regulation, it is impossible to think that their functioning is optimal. Hence, it is logical to think that through optimal regulation of gatekeepers, allowing for greater diversity and transparency, a healthier user experience can be achieved (Gorwa, 2019). Through a secure governance system it is much easier to think of the Internet as a more optimal place to be at the centre of our society. Furthermore, the Chinese and Russian measures can be seen as excessive, as there would be no need to isolate your network from the domain of other companies.
Does a solution exist?
As Flew, Martin & Suzor consider, the regulatory capacities of the state with respect to the digital world are reduced, which means that it is not easy for them to act in this area (2019). Therefore, as I have said, it has been the companies that have taken control of the Internet. Depriving these large companies of this privilege should be a priority for their good development. This same author considers a non-state body to be the most viable solution to this problem, since it would distance it from state interests and, at the same time, from the companies that control the Internet. Through this body, a fair regulation would be achieved that respects the most important thing in the digital world, freedom of expression.
However, without taking away the power of corporations, regulating the internet is complicated, and would lead to measures that could violate fundamental rights, as in the cases described above. Undoubtedly, the rights of each one of us are unquestionable and, therefore, any regulation that is proposed around the digital world must ensure these rights. In this way, the measures proposed by countries such as China are outside the marked margins, as they deprive their users of the right to information by denying access to international pages.
Beyond strict regulation that limits the internet, the digital world requires a healthy, transparent and user-friendly space. This needs to be built around human rights to maintain and protect our right to express and inform ourselves. Measures such as these are an example of how not addressing the solution, limiting is not regulating.
Economy, E. (2018, June 29). The great firewall of China: Xi Jinping’s internet shutdown. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/jun/29/the-great-firewall-of-china-xi-jinpings-internet-shutdown
Broderick, T. (2023, July 13). Russia is trying to leave the internet and build its own. Scientific American. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/russia-is-trying-to-leave-the-internet-and-build-its-own/
Gorwa, R. (2019). The platform governance triangle: conceptualising the informal regulation of online content. Internet Policy Review.
Flew, T., Martin, F. & Suzor, N. (2019). Internet regulation as media policy: Rethinking the question of digital communication platform governance. Journal of Digital Media & Policy.
MacKinnon, R., Hickok, E., Bar, A. & Lim, H. (2014). Fostering freedom online: The role of Internet Intermediaries. Unesco. https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000231162
Mansell, R., & Steinmueller, W. E. (2020). Advanced introduction to platform economics. Edward Elgar Publishing Limited.
PASQUALE, F. (2015). The Black Box Society: The Secret Algorithms That Control Money and Information. Harvard University Press. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt13x0hch