Neil Brown reviews a book that takes a controversial view of the Internet
Don't be taken in by those who say how beneficial the Internet is for society, because it isn't. Not only does the Internet accrue benefits to only very small percentage of the population, the harms which the Internet causes greatly outweigh its benefits. The lure of cyberspace and the claims that the Internet is a zone which enables — nay, guarantees — free speech, open discussion and opportunities for everyone are (now, at least) no more than digital snake oil, peddled by an elite group of predominantly young, white, middle class males. Put simply, the Internet is a menace.
This is the premise of Andrew Keen's book 'The Internet Is Not The Answer.'
Keen advances this thesis through a series of parables. He talks of the Battery club in San Francisco, which, though calling itself an 'unclub' that is designed to eschew the hierarchy and privilege of the traditional private members club, Keen sees as little more than an exclusive retreat for the successful few — the '1%' — even if those few are not wearing suits. He paints a grim picture of life in Rochester, New York, decimated after the death of Kodak, rails against the 'Everything Store' of Amazon and its low prices and love of robots, and reminisces about his upbringing in Soho, London, and the impact that the Internet has had on the music business. And for those of you who are thinking of your full iPods, stuffed through the convenience of iTunes or Amazon's 1-Click(TM) downloads, Keen sees only pirates, pennies as royalties and shrinking cultural output — although, by the time you get this far into the book, you will be so accustomed to the persistent and pervasive downbeat tone about all things Internet that you'd probably fall off your chair if he said anything else.
It was tough read for someone like me, who benefits hugely from the Internet, and I could not help but smile at the irony that, having heard about the book from a friend on Twitter, I searched for it on Google, bought it from Amazon and read it mostly on an iPad: without the despicable, lamentable Internet, I'd never have heard of Keen's book in the first place. But perhaps my reaction was inevitable: after all, in Keen's worldview, lawyers are one of those groups which are likely to be granted membership to the Battery, or to benefit as one of the Internet's elite. Lawyers — perhaps especially IT lawyers — do not need saving from the Internet.
Tough though I found it at times, it definitely poses some questions which, frankly, demand attention. As companies increasingly invest in robots, process automation and other human-replacement technologies, just what are the humans going to do? If Amazon no longer needs people packing its boxes, or replaces delivery drivers with drones, what jobs exist for those workers?
In an ideal world, increased efficiency would mean that we can all work less hard for an equivalent standard of living, and enjoy more hours of leisure and relaxation. But those readers who are reading this on the Tube on their way home for yet another evening's late dinner, detained by the inevitable early-evening flurry of email, or who constantly put this review down to compulsively check their BlackBerry, will probably feel differently. Life probably won't be easier: perhaps we will all be expected to simply do more. Worse, perhaps it means that some will not be able to work at all, for there will simply be no jobs that they can do. Then what?
Has anyone come up with a sustainable model for Internet services, where a user downloading a 'free' app is likely to pay with vast tranches of their personal data in place of money? Do we want to live in a society where huge companies, and huge three- and four-letter agencies, know more about us than we do about themselves? Is it too long before the day comes when a taxi (robot-driven, of course) pulls up outside your door in the morning and you step in and give it your destination through your phone, only for it to tell you that, no, that is not where you want to go, and that you will be taken somewhere else instead, because that's what the algorithm decides that you really want? Worse, what happens if it actually turns out to be right…?
For those who might argue — as I felt myself starting to do — that the Internet is not a fixed thing, now in its final, unmodifiable form, but simply the current step on an ongoing journey, and that these problems can be addressed as part of its evolution: can they? Is that realistic? Or are those who have the most influence on the direction of the Internet's development more motivated to find their way to their next private jet than acting as a social conscience?
Powerful questions indeed. But it is, perhaps, an odd book for a legal publication to review, because it is not a 'law book'. It is about people, and technology, and society. It is, without doubt, an intriguing book. And it is the conclusion which is most intriguing of all: Keen concludes that the solution to the problems, the way to ensure that the Internet is not just a means for the 1% to make their next billion, is through regulation. Law.
This threw me. It was absolutely not what I was expecting his solution to be. But this is what Keen posits: that those in a position to legislate should be wielding their drafting pencils to shape the Internet, and the powerful companies providing the services so many millions of users take for granted, before, as he puts it, they shape us. Competition law, rigorous tax law enforcement, more privacy laws and strong unions all have their part to play. Keen is probably sitting, smiling, as he reads of the European Commission's publicly-declared interest in the activities of Google.
I just wish that he had spent more time developing this conclusion. How, exactly, will law shape the Internet? Which country's law? Are those who make laws so much more diverse than those running the Internet services he decries, and are they motivated to take the kind of action he considers necessary? After 200-odd pages of doom and gloom, the concluding section is tiny, with no real elaboration on how law might be the solution, and that — for me, as a lawyer, at least — is a let down. To name but a few, Larry Lessig has commented extensively on the interplay of code and law, Uta Kohl has demonstrated challenges of jurisdiction online, and Chris Marsden and Ian Brown have explored co-regulatory approaches to solving knotty Internet problems. But none of these get mentioned. If 'the Internet' is not the answer, neither is simply evoking the word 'law'.
If you are a lawyer interested in the Internet, and the effects of the Internet, 'The Internet Is Not The Answer' is worthy of an afternoon's reading. Keen's history of the development of the Internet, then hypertext, then the World Wide Web, is highly accessible and interesting even to those who are pretty familiar with the subject, and his frequent references to very much current technology news and affairs help demonstrate his points with relevance. But its real value lies not in the solution Keen proposes, which is underdeveloped, but in the enunciation of the problems which he considers need solving. Whether you agree or disagree with his narrative, this book offers plenty of food for thought.
Neil Brown is an experienced telecoms and technology lawyer at a global communications company and is writing his PhD on the regulation of over the top communications services.