Using Knowledge to Save Lives
It is in uncertain times such as these that we realize the importance of truth, and the value of uninhibited flows of information. Knowledge is power of course, but now more than ever – knowledge can save lives.
There’s the lifesaving knowledge of doctors, nurses, and others on the front lines fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. There’s also the lifesaving knowledge of the scientists who study the spread of diseases – who know how to slow this thing down, if not stop it completely. But you see, none of this knowledge is useful – none of it can save lives – if it’s not accessible. When information cannot flow freely, lives are lost. China has proven that point soundly. National Law Review writes:
We can see all kinds of moments where different decisions could have lessened the severity of the outbreak we are currently enduring. You have probably heard variations of: “Chinese authorities denied that the virus could be transferred from human to human until it was too late.” What you have probably not heard is how emphatically, loudly, and repeatedly the Chinese government insisted human transmission was impossible, long after doctors in Wuhan had concluded human transmission was ongoing — and how the World Health Organization assented to that conclusion, despite the suspicions of other outside health experts.
Freely Sharing Information Can Save Lives
Freely sharing information could have saved lives in China. It could have saved lives in Italy, and it certainly could have alerted the world that governments were not taking adequate measures to stop COVID-19 from spreading across the globe so quickly. Freely sharing information could have lessened the economic impact that we are feeling now – an impact that may completely destroy many small businesses.
This, of course, isn’t the first time that stopping the free exchange of information magnified a disaster. The Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986 for example, was made worse by the layers of authoritarian government in the Soviet Union that withheld information until it was too late to stop the catastrophe from expanding. The nuclear fallout was contained only by the heroic efforts of the men and women in the country- many of whom gave their lives to save the planet. That is what happens when information cannot flow freely, and when scientists can’t work together to help us solve problems that transcend geopolitical borders.
The Sovereign Internet
Which brings me to the concept of a sovereign internet. These words were not meant to be used together when the ideas that became the world wide web (www) were first introduced. Tim Berners-Lee and the people who first coalesced to bring the idea of the worldwide web to light used words like collaboration, mesh, and hypertext to describe a vision of the Internet that allowed the free exchange of information, and of people engaging in this free flow without boundaries, and without fees.
The idea took off of course, and governments around the world watched, then joined in and began to reap the benefits of free-flowing information. But many of these same governments did not fully anticipate the effect that these three letters – www – would have on their ability to exercise power. When they did, it caused those governments great alarm, and many have tried to turn back the tide, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. Their reactions follow a pattern that permeates all of human history: Power protects power. That has always been so.
China’s government – with its now-30-year-old Great Firewall – is one that has been more successful at stopping the free flow of information. Almost three decades later, Russia followed suit by launching its own sovereign internet earlier this year. Iran, Turkey, and Egypt have headed in the same direction.
The United States meanwhile is trying to figure out how to strike a balance between conflicting demands of security (the Patriot Act), privacy (privacy laws), wealth creation (capitalism), and the equal distribution of assets (socialism). In the absence of a federal data privacy law, states have begun to use data privacy laws – like California’s Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), and New York State’s SHIELD Act – to shape the rules of information sharing the way they see fit. And so even in our great democratic republic, the Internet has begun to take on a different form depending on where you are logging in. It is one big muddled argument.
In Europe, the internet is regulated in such a way that privacy is protected as a right of individuals. The Internet in Europe is a form of shared, collective power. But that doesn’t mean Europe has avoided contributing to the splinternet problem. Regulations designed to give power back to the people, like the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), are well-intentioned, but they’re still a form of sovereign control and have had the effect of localizing data and applications inside of European data centers.
Social Media Exacerbate the Situation
Social media giants have only made the situation worse. With access to massive volumes of personal information, they’ve become information dealers in the information wars. The casualty is truth.
One of the problems with allowing these companies to consolidate massive amounts of personal information is that they become like governments. They have structured their laws – and algorithms – in such a way that they decide what we see. One outcome is the warring ideologies of tribalism, fake news, hate speech, and identity politics – enabled by echo chambers like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. To take it a step further, social media giants are also similar to authoritarian governments in that they are loyal only to themselves. In China, if social media giants want to operate, they must essentially work for the government, and give their information to the government, without any need for warrants, courts or other means of power-sharing.
Businesses Get Caught in the Middle
The result of all this data manipulation – in China, the US, the EU, and across the globe – is what we have come to know as the Splinternet: Each country or state’s internet mirrors its government’s values.
Caught in the middle are businesses trying to figure out the new rules of power through compliance. They don’t have much choice but to comply. They just want to do business, but it is getting more costly and more complex. They struggle with figuring out how to understand the latest government demands and how to comply.
How businesses have responded is telling. They can ignore the new rules at their peril, a high-risk approach that has been the norm for smaller businesses that cannot afford the cost of complying with all the regulations. This approach eventually drives them out of the market.
Or they can comply in the way businesses tend to do; by taking the least-complex and cheapest route. But ironically, compliance feeds into many of the problems that we are grappling with right now: operating at the extremes, under sovereign and absolute control by governments and tech companies that restrict the flow of information, and under privacy regulations that have not factored in the importance of sharing. Over-regulation stifles businesses and innovation and accelerates the fractionalization of information.
Finding a Balance
Can we find a balance between the collaborative, free flow of information that Berners-Lee first envisioned, and the need to operate within a set of protective rules? Yes.
Medieval times had the plague and information that traveled at the speed of sailing ships and horses. Today we have a new plague, but the difference is that information now flows almost at the speed of light. We need rules that protect privacy, but also rules that respect the free exchange of ideas and information made possible by such powerful technology.
Lest some may think this is just about COVID-19, or about China, and Russia, and their sovereign internets, think again. We don’t have to go to foreign lands to see this censoring in action. Like I said, Twitter, YouTube, and Google often decide what is acceptable online speech in the United States. This is about our need for balance – and finding balance is not a one-time, binary act. It is a continuation of finding the mix between the sovereignty of countries, the rights of businesses, the rights of individuals, and the free flow of information.
COVID-19 is an example of this need for balance, but it’s only the latest. What we know for certain is this: the free flow of information provided by the internet could have served the greater public good of discovering early on that what was cooking in Wuhan had the potential to kill people far beyond China’s borders. Maybe, just maybe, with a free flow of the right information, we could have acted sooner. Maybe countries could have helped each other from the start if they knew that this virus had the capacity to disregard geopolitical borders and become a global pandemic.
Information is power, with great potential to help and harm. We must find the balance. That is a lesson worth learning and adopting.
Contributed by ADCG Advisory Board Chair, Carlos Solari: