It’s Getting Personal – Protection of the Vulnerable User

Jonathan Zittrain (2015) talks about the trajectory of the Internet and the potential roles needed to regulate it. If the Internet does define our perception of the world as he says, then it becomes a critical issue for society to say when it goes a step too far or falls short of “doing good.”

For me, “doing good” means not contributing to the spread of misinformation or acting out of financial obligation. I believe that only truths should exist online or in print, and short of that, disclaimers about the level of confidence used to publish information should be present on every page. As television, radio, and other mediums have been forced to comply with regulations, so too should the Internet.

Zittrain also introduces the analogy to fiduciary duty or looking out for a client’s best interest. Right now there is no stipulation that a search engine or any other online source needs to give information that is verified or should be working for the benefit of the user. At the end of his talk, he says that academics should care about these issues because they will continue to need to navigate them. He does not mention a specific responsibility or call to action, but five years later we can see how his talk accurately forecasted the current online landscape.

So what about now?

We know that algorithm math has power over many aspects of our culture and even the decisions we make. It predicts and calculates based on data we volunteered without thinking about it. How many unnecessary questions do we answer because they are required fields in order to create an account?

We also know that key manipulators are paying attention to make the data work for their goals: whether through increased sales, control of their market, or less obvious end results. Is the Internet a lawless arena, or can we work towards transparency and established rules? Finally, are we willing to give up the freedoms we have enjoyed for a more regulated Internet experience? Or would we rather place all of this responsibility on the user – a user who may not understand when the math is working with or against him or her.

Posted on October 18, 2020, in Social Media. Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Liz
    You drilled right into the concerns I had as I watched Zittrain’s presentation. There just isn’t enough regulation of the internet, and it seems like that lack is being exploited in areas that had previously been held to higher standards. I don’t know that our legal system can either write laws that are able to keep up with the evolution of digital communication or to keep up with the enforcement of them if it did. If online sources can report half-truths and outright lies without fear, it seems that the laws currently on the books will be open to challenge and will eventually fall.

    I think we’ll get it figured out eventually, but that analogy to the wild west feels awfully appropriate right now.

  2. Your goal to not contribute to the spread of misinformation is all I think we can do at this stage. I know I’ve seen Facebook’s attempts to correct “fake news” and COVID misinformation and while it may be easy to click on a button on FB, Twitter or Instagram to report a misleading or offensive post by someone we don’t know, I also realize the difficulty when those posts come from (more often than not) older family members or friends. I would hope there’s a light at the end of this tunnel, but in the meantime, for a more positive take by Zittrain, check out his TED talk:

    • I appreciate Zittrain as a speaker: he was unknown to me before this, but I like that he shows a balanced view of technology!

      Your example of the “report post” option is easy to use, and I’d also agree that the decision to use it against a more peripheral connection is naturally easier. I wonder if there is a better indicator to encourage media users to report offensive posts. I personally find the red flag and word “report” unappealing and potentially ineffective. If those reports do not go anywhere productive, I think I would prefer a way to highlight a portion of the post and request the user consider editing or deleting it, whether anonymously or not.

  3. Liz,
    I also mentioned the importance of regulations for the internet. As the range of using the internet becomes bigger and bigger, there emerge more good or bad issues on the internet. This is why we need regulations for the activities online as there are regulations for TV, radio, and other media. Then, we might worry about who will make the regulations and who will control them. Also, through controlling the regulations, who will eventually have the controlling power? Should there be a regulator over the regulation controller? MY question is “Who will be watching the regulator?” This also leads to another issue about the security of the information we have and share online through lots of platforms. We need a safe destination for this matter in the long term.
    Thank you, Liz.

    • YJ I agree, this is definitely a look towards the long-term effects of decisions made now. I do hope it becomes less of a worrisome topic, you are so right that we need a safe destination, I’d add that we’ll need better warnings for sites that are not secure as well.

  4. I’m really glad Dr. Pignetti posted that other Zittrain video: it made me feel more hopeful. 🙂 I think I’d rather the Internet remain free and regulated by kind geeks. Television, comic books, and radio have been regulated and controlled because it costs money to produce and distribute through those mediums. The internet was created as a means to connect to other people, and I hope that we will educate future generations about internet safety so that they can make those connections responsibly.

    • Leanna, I like showing that hopeful JZ video to my freshmen! The examples he gives are funny and relatable. Viva the kind geeks! 🤓

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