A tipping point in internet behaviour?
Two recent official reports – Digital Britain; and Ofcom’s Communications Sector Review – have suggested that Britain is at a tipping point in respect of the internet. To date, it is suggested, the internet has generally supplemented offline behaviour. Now, it is suggested, it is becoming the norm. In many areas of life, most of us are beginning to do things online by preference and by habit. If so, the digital has not just entered the mainstream; it has or is about to become the mainstream.
This tipping point in internet behaviour has, of course, long been predicted and advocated by most people who are concerned with internet policy, by much of business and by much of government. In spite of acknowledged problems – spam, child protection, online fraud – the internet is generally regarded by policymakers as highly beneficial in delivering desired social outcomes; as, one might say, “morally positive”.
This attitude towards the transformation of society by information technology is rather new. For most of the 20th century, at least in popular culture, the potential of information technology was more often felt to be alarming than progressive, in particular because it was expected to increase the power of the state versus the citizen. It is only since the advent of mass internet that dystopian visions of the future like 1984, Brave NewWorld and Blade Runner have been succeeded by enthusiasm for technologies that are seen as personally empowering.
Impact on society
Although the tipping point described here has long been predicted, however, there is still very little policy analysis of the impact of the internet on society as a whole. Most of what is written about the internet’s impact on society still concerns the positive impact that policymakers expect it to have on specific dimensions of behaviour in single sectors (education, for example, or online democracy) or the need for mitigation of known negative impacts (child pornography, fraud and other internet crime).
As a result, we have a fairly good idea of the way in which the internet may change specific aspects of society. But we have only very speculative ideas of how the displacement of offline by online ways of doing things will change the way in which society as a whole is organised – in terms of employment, personal relationships, participation in democratic governance – and just as little understanding of how the life experience of particular social groups is likely to be affected. This needs to change. A few foresight reports and speculative thinking by advocates of change will not enable us to maximise the benefits of the “internet as norm”, or to anticipate its problems.
I will raise three examples of why this is important – concerned with law enforcement, social exclusion and governance.
One of the principal drivers for personal use of the internet has been the opportunity it provides to bypass the constraints of existing commerce, law and social norms. On the one hand, this has enabled the success of businesses that offer a much wider choice of goods to customers, irrespective of location, than they could previously obtain – businesses such as Amazon and iTunes, for example. On the other, the opportunity to bypass legal constraints and social norms has enabled much more widespread consumption of pornography and gambling, and has disrupted established international tax and intellectual property regimes. Even though the law does not distinguish between online and offline behaviour in these contexts, as is usually the case, its enforcement in these areas has perforce become asymmetrical. Widespread experience of this kind of behavioural bypass has changed attitudes concerning law and social norms, as importantly – though less visibly – as it has changed commercial relationships between customers and the suppliers of particular types of goods.
Providing services online has generally – and rightly – been seen as highly positive for the majority of citizens, offering more choice, more convenience and often lower costs in accessing both commercial goods and public services. There are often associated cost savings for businesses and providers of public services. As a result, putting services online and extending online access to those services have been policy priorities.
Some service providers, however, including banks and some government departments, have sought to go further, and explicitly to push customers online by reducing the availability of offline provision. Yet, as recent research for the Department of Communities and Local Government (Digital Inclusion: An Analysis of Social Disadvantage and the Information Society) has made clear, there is a significant segment of the population which rejects online service provision, and which is therefore unlikely to make use of online services even where these offer substantial benefits. This segment does not seem susceptible to advocacy concerning the benefits of online services. It is also significantly correlated with social groups that suffer other forms of social exclusion. Providing services primarily or only online may further disadvantage highly disadvantaged individuals. As the internet becomes the norm, our focus needs to shift from ensuring that online services are available to all towards ensuring that those who wish to access services offline still have the right and means to do so.
The term “internet governance” comprises both “narrow” governance of the internet itself (standard-setting, coordination and administration of IP addresses, domain names, etc) and “broad” governance of the interface between the internet and other areas of public policy. The latter has become increasingly important as the internet has extended its reach, so that much of the internet policy debate that takes place today concerns issues such as access, security and rights rather than the technicalities that keep the internet in play.
Internet governance entities are proud of their multistakeholder character – that is, of the involvement, on relatively equal terms, of governments, the private sector, “civil society” and internet technical specialists. This is rightly seen as enabling a different style of decision-making, which can be more responsive to different groups’ requirements in a rapidly changing technological environment. However, the quality of interface between internet governance and mainstream governance in other fields is often weak. Policies concerning how to deal with the internet’s impact or potential impact on (e.g.) civil rights or the environment, the judicial system or social welfare, need to be led not from the internet but from the mainstream policy area concerned. Building effective dialogue between these mainstream areas and internet governance has proved difficult. And, although internet governance bodies and debates are multistakeholder in character, some key stakeholder communities – notably private sector users of the internet, and mainstream civil society organisations – play very little part in them. We need much more engagement from them if we are to maximise the gains and minimise the problems resulting from this “tipping point”.
There has been a lot of talk over the past ten years about how the internet will change society. There has been much less talk of how society will change the internet. There should be more.