The Irish Examiner, April 10 2021

Letters to the Editor: Big Tech and Anonymity

In my lifetime (a long one), I have never known a key industry to be allowed such freedom in terms of self-regulation, than what is happening in the tech corporations. There are hopeful signs that we are starting to catch up, but self-regulation remains a central concept.

The Big Tech industry generates three myths to disguise their greed and which bring into sharp focus the need to regulate the industry. The first of these is the right to free speech, by pretending that this is an absolute right. It is no such thing. It has always been trammelled by the need to balance competing rights: the right not to be slandered, to be free of hate speech, to a private life, to know the identity of your accuser, and many other rights. The second myth relates to privacy. The right to privacy is fundamental but, again, it can be restricted when necessary in a democratic society to pursue a legitimate aim. We all have social security numbers, passports, telephone numbers, and on and on. Records of all of these identifiers grant relatively easy access to the police if a crime is suspected.

The third myth is that of anonymity and this, of itself, is an existential threat to democratic societies. The first two are just distractions to hide the industry’s need for this one. Anonymity adds enormously to online traffic and thereby to profit. The term “anonymous free speech” is an oxymoron. It has no identifiable source, tells us nothing of vested interests, bias or motive. It smears unjustifiable pain, uncertainty and lies throughout our societies. It is unconscionable that this should be accepted to bolster the profits and power of Silicon Valley. 

Anonymity itself is not intrinsic to the Internet functioning. Every web enabled machine has at least two identifiable registration numbers: an I.P. (Internet Protocol), which provides an address and a MAC number, which identifies the exact machine. The industry has decided that these numbers must be secret, identities readily available to themselves only, except when it suits them to release the data to analytic companies. The social media corporations want to publish endless anonymous opinions, but without the responsibility mainstream media must bear, when they use an anonymous source.

What exactly would our legislators do if the auto industries owned the roads, controlled and kept secret the allocation and ownership of car registration numbers and, to add insult to injury, allowed some owners to have blank plates and yet others whose numbers changed every time they started the engine. In reality, this is what the Big Tech industry is getting away with. Why is everyone faffing about and refusing to regulate them as we should? 

Very recently the execrable Porn Hub was forced to delete two thirds of their posts and to demand proof of identity for new ones. This action was forced on them, not by legislators or police; but by Visa and MasterCard. Is this to be the future of of legislation?

Posted in Franks Library.