By Chandran Nair
It's time to slay the sacred cow that the internet is a force only for good
In recent months the world has been consumed by the tit for tat internet spying allegations between the US and China.
Then came the news that the NSA has worked with some of the internet's leading companies to not only spy on American citizens but those of Europe and Hong Kong as well.
Much of the ensuing debate has thus been about the erosion of privacy by the state and by large corporations increasingly using big data to "understand" customers and the behaviour of their staff.
But in the midst of this obsession with the privacy issue there has been little attention to other equally corrosive impacts of the internet revolution. Part of the problem is that until very recently, but hopefully no longer, the debate was framed in such a way as to cast any and all critics of the internet as either luddites or somehow anti-freedom.
There are four dangers, besides state surveillance, the internet poses which could make the world ungovernable and dangerous, destroy innocence and speed resource depletion.
First, it allows anyone to make their own guns and bombs, incite hatred and mobilise instant protests without regard to the consequences. Second, it creates unmanageable industrial espionage that will end the idea of businesses operating ethically. Third, it allows porn to reach every corner of the world, making access to the degradation of women only a click away. And fourth, it ramps up the speed of consumption and reduces its costs, hastening environmental destruction and resource depletion.
Dangers of pornography
The unrestricted access to porn by everyone from potential sexual predators to underage children is now making some headlines.
The United States has implemented an almost laughably limp system whereby adult websites can voluntarily list themselves under .XXX domain names. Iceland, Saudi Arabia and India are all considering bans on pornography, while the UK has plans to ban it on public wireless connections.
Yet at a time when a single porn site can account for almost 2% of total internet traffic, there is almost no reliable research into the effects that this explosion and instant access has on our societies, especially the young.
Whether any of the aforementioned bans will effectively restrict access to porn is one thing, but that such a major issue – and one that could have especially devastating impacts on children – has been all but ignored by policymakers until recently speaks volumes about the current unwillingness to challenge even the worst aspects of internet freedom.
Driving scale and speed of consumption
As for resource consumption, it's a truism that the internet has increased the pace of our lives. But while the benefits of this greater speed are shouted from the rooftops by the Silicon Valley crowd, its negative consequences have been left unexplored.
The omnipresence of the internet has made personal consumption both faster and easier than it has ever been before. And while the internet's role as a tool for enabling consumption is not novel – think product catalogues – its scale is.
It can be accessed from anywhere – on computers, laptops, phones and tablets and at work, at home and on the go. In the current frenzy to stimulate economic growth through promoting all forms of consumption, the internet is the medium with the greatest potential. Purchasing goods over the internet is both anonymous and guilt-free, and online retailers purposefully streamline the purchasing process to encouraging impulse buying, a growing addiction made easier as it doesn't even require leaving your chair.
The opportunity for billions now to desire anything from anywhere and buy it over the internet has given many "local" products a new found carbon footprint, at a time when we need the entire opposite. Then of course there's the whole question of jobs and tax losses.
The result is a massive, and growing, online marketplace that has changed attitudes, created a sense of entitlement and divorced customers from the reality of the resources that go into making consumer goods.
Impact on emerging economies
The greatest dangers are in the emerging economies, where internet penetration and purchasing power continue to skyrocket. China's internet retailing sector posted $210 billion in revenue in 2012, a growth rate of 60% from 2011. America's internet retailing market is only slightly larger and growing much more slowly. In India, 32% of smart phone users use their device for online shopping.
But the personal dimension is only half the story. The internet has also greatly increased the production speed of the goods themselves. In itself, this is not a bad thing. Internet-enabled supply chains have greatly increased efficiency, businesses which employ EDI (Electronic data interchange) can fulfill orders 30% more quickly.
Sourcing goods through Alibaba, China's largest e-commerce company, cuts the normal sourcing cycle by 75%. However, the increase in speed has only been in one direction. While we can cut down forests far faster than 100 years ago, we cannot grow them back any faster.
In other words, the internet has become a key tool in dramatically increasing the volume of consumption and the speed at which it is realised. This compression of the production cycle has put the institutions societies depend on – be they government bodies, private watchdogs or international agencies – to help negotiate between the need to consume and the need to conserve and protect, under unprecedented pressure.
Impact of an increase in speed
And even more than physical goods, the internet has sped up the creation and exchange of information with implications few are aware of. The incredible interconnectedness of global financial systems, for instance, allows for the practice of high-frequency trading and speculation of food commodities and resources, whereby stocks and other financial securities are bought and sold thousands of times a second.
It is the reason that financial firms are willing to pay millions of dollars for millisecond improvements in their connection speeds. These practices, which benefit no one save the traders themselves, create market instabilities which disproportionately affect those in the developing world.
The internet as it is today is a tool of enormous power that deserves most of the praise that has been heaped upon it. But the current cult of internet is unmistakably an ideological position quite removed from the reality of what the internet really is. And as with the worst kinds of ideology, it is afraid of being questioned.
Slaying sacred cows
The truth, however, is that the only way to really do service to the internet's potential is to ensure that our institutions are properly equipped to deal with its consequences, so that the laudable aspects of the internet don't have to be thrown out with the bad.
So what are the solutions? They are many but they require challenging a number of sacred cows. The key question surrounds the role of the state in controlling and using the internet. In America the NSA has apparently abused its mandate to protect American citizens by spying on them instead.
But the excesses of one government agency in one country should not cause us to reject the fundamental role of the government in protecting public good in the internet age. After all, the question remains, who will we trust to protect the nine-year old girl in Gansu province China, from pornography – Google or the Chinese government?
Chandran Nair is founder and CEO of the Global Institute for Tomorrow. He is the author of Consumptionomics: Asia's Role in Reshaping Capitalism and Saving the Planet.