The dark side of the web

Hidden among the many virtues of the internet are
Hidden among the many virtues of the internet are "direct and specific calls for murder, child pornography, direct calls for terrorism and spreading of electronic viruses, and material protected by copyright legislation." Tobi Loftus

In the bush the internet can be a social savior, from powering the school of the air to keeping in touch with relatives in the city. But for all of its benefits the web has a darker side, where lawmakers struggle to shine a light.

Last week I rang a mate who had made the mistake of expressing his dissenting view on same-sex marriage on social media.

Because of his Christian beliefs and other personal reasons, he would (most likely) return a NO on the Government's controversial same-sex marriage survey.

As a result, he had become embroiled in a vortex of hate.

People previously thought of as friends, became overnight enemies and condemned him mercilessly.

Being a kind-hearted bloke, my friend was trying faithfully to pen a respectful answer to each barbed remark.

"How could your heart to be so full of hate?" asked one.

I don't propose to weigh up the pros and cons of the government's survey here, nor of the debate itself.

Suffice to say, I disagreed with my friend's point of view and had lodged a YES.

But equally as strongly I knew my friend's heart not to be "full of hate."

I reminded him of the words of French philosopher Voltaire (Francois-Marie Arouet 1694-1778), who once (reportedly) wrote: "I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it."

There is some controversy over whether it was actually Voltaire who said this.

And morality's waters can become murky where religious freedoms and discrimination intersect.

Either way, Voltaire's quote has become a catch-cry of democracy, the political system under which Australians and others in the West supposedly live, where we may freely express our views whatever they may be.

When it burst into our lives in the 1990s, the internet was touted as a utopia that subverted mainstream thinking and where freedom of speech might truly flourish.

Its promise was that scholars, lawmakers, teachers and teens could all engage equally in a non-stop global conversation.

To an extent that has come true.

The internet has changed the way we study, shop, travel, stay in touch and entertain ourselves.

It encourages freedom of communication, expression and creativity.

Through emergent virtual reality technologies, cyber gadgetry is even reshaping the way some users perceive the world.

But the World Wide Web has a flip side, highlighted in its troubled and at times demonic offspring, social media.

With the promise of a platform for every voice, social media works night and day to extol, but at the same time undermine, the freedom of speech it claims as a birthright.

We've all stumbled over, seen, or narrowly avoided, those groups who go beyond expressing a dissenting viewpoint to making personal and sometimes hurtful attacks.

Cyber bullying, hate speech, trolling, call it what you will, the purveyors of hate are now a widely identified species inhabiting online ecosystems.

And they are found in equal numbers on the left and right of the political spectrum.

With more than 40% of the world's population-that's more than three billion people- online, that's an awful lot of potential hate and a great deal of emotional angst displacing productive debate.

Already our politicians so often appear stuck fast in ineffective squabbling and mud-slinging.

To continue to tolerate this sort of behavior online is to risk losing our ability to constructively argue altogether.

But hate speech is only one ugly side of the internet that is explored in a groundbreaking book, "Confronting the Internet's Dark Side: Moral and Social Responsibility on the Free Highway" (CUP 2015), by University of Hull Professor of Politics Raphael Cohen-Almagor.

The professor worries that without clear direction for growth the internet will become a dangerous runaway we cannot rein in.

"The hurried acceptance of the Internet in the Western world has been accompanied by the controversial realization that no central authority sets standards for acceptable content on this network," writes Prof Cohen-Almagor.

Where liberals celebrate a lack of rules, he says, others see a potential tinderbox.

Indeed, hidden among the many virtues of the internet are "direct and specific calls for murder, child pornography, direct calls for terrorism and spreading of electronic viruses, and material protected by copyright legislation."

But this is nothing new, explains the professor.

"Throughout history, each major innovation in communication has caused distress and confusion similar to what the world is experiencing today with the internet."

Nonetheless, the speed of growth of the internet needs to be matched to society's best interests, and to ensure security.

Doubtless some will continue to argue the internet's lack of regulation is its greatest asset.

But Professor Cohen-Almagor warns we must weigh freedom of expression against social responsibility.

In all areas of human life and endeavor, we accept boundaries that allow our societies to function.

Such regulation helps define who we are and where we want to go.

Dignity, moral worth and an imperative to "do no harm", are our companions in the real world.

Why not on the internet?

Topics:  glenn morrison heartbeat heartbeat column internet social media

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