Raphael Cohen-Almagor is an Israeli political scientist working at the University of Hull in the UK. His interests range from liberal democracy to human rights to euthanasia. He has just published a book on how democratic societies should tame the internet, Confronting the Internet’s Dark Side: Moral and Social Responsibility on the Free Highway. MercatorNet interviewed him about his challenging ideas.

MercatorNet: Most books about the internet are either alarmist or utopian: it will either destroy liberal Western democracy or it opens up a new world of unimaginable freedom. Yours doesn’t fit into either box. What are your hopes for the internet?

Raphael Cohen-Almagor: The internet is very young. In historical terms, it is a tiny baby. The early internet was devised and implemented in American research units, universities, and telecommunication companies that had vision and interest in cutting-edge research. Up until the 1990s the network developed in the United States and then, within a few years, expanded globally in remarkable pace and with no less impressive technological innovations the end of which we are yet to witness. Thus, effectively the internet as we know it today is less than thirty years ago. We are learning how to cope with the rapid innovation.

My hope is that we will continue to develop the internet and enhance its massive potential for the benefit of humanity and, at the same time, develop ample mechanisms to address abuse. The internet contains the best but unfortunately also the worse products of humanity. Responsible use of the internet by all stakeholders will ensure that people will be able to surf the Net safely, making the most of human imagination, creativity, innovation and freedom.

MercatorNet: You argue in your book: “Many internet experts believe that all they need to do is to provide the structure and the rest is up for the public. Such complacent neutrality is amoral at best, and immoral at worse.” But the internet is a business, isn’t it? Filtering is going to hurt the bottom line of ISPs.

Cohen-Almagor: Most people are rational beings. We know to discern between good and evil. Most people wish to cultivate their abilities and to advance themselves in a positive and social environment that would benefit them. Most people would not assist anti-social activities even when they will make a profit as a result.

Let us consider the following example. Jessica is a newspaper official responsible for publication of advertisement on her paper. One day she received an envelope that contains a hefty check with an ad that the sender wishes to publish. The ad is opened with the words: “If you wish to be eaten I am your man!”. Jessica is a moral person. She objects to cannibalism. She does not wish her paper to be associated with cannibalism. She returns the envelope with its content to the sender.

In my book I devote discussion to the merits of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). Most businesses embrace the idea of CSR because of the advantages and benefits that it brings. Companies are becoming more socially responsible because such conduct enhances their public image and reputation, increases customer loyalty, results in a more satisfied and productive workforce, diminishes legal problems and contributes to a stronger and healthier community.

Most ISPs would like to keep the business going. They would not like to be associated with shady business. Most ISPs and web-hosting companies would not like their servers to be transformed into forums in which people concoct criminal, violent and anti-social activities. Thus most ISPs and web-hosting companies refrain from knowingly assisting such activities.

My book urges them to do more. I want them to be proactive, not only reactive. And I think this business model will work for their benefit and for the benefit of society as a whole. Moreover, I think there is a growing realisation that if Net companies won’t become proactive, governments will transgress into their business.

We as a society need gatekeepers. The obvious gatekeepers are ISPs and web-hosting companies but if they prefer to allow any traffic then governments will step in. The signs are on the wall. I think companies will prefer to take greater responsibilities to being under close scrutiny of governments.

MercatorNet: I suspect that in your eyes, ignoring the moral dimension of how we interact with the internet is a crime. What proposals do you have for ISPs and web hosting sites? 

Cohen-Almagor: Well, I do not think it is a crime. I think it is irresponsible. I mentioned that most ISPs do not wish to be rowdy. They opt for some form of regulation by adopting certain abiding rules. They offer guidelines regarding prohibited internet content and usage, terms for service cancellation, and Net-user responsibilities. I want them to do a better job adhering to their own terms of conduct. It is not enough to put regulations online. It is expected that active steps will be taken to ensure that content that clearly fall outside the bounds of legitimate speech will not be entertained on Net servers.

It is argued that freedom of speech is a cherished value. I do not contest the importance of free expression. I say that this value needs to be balanced against no less important value: social responsibility. Liberty without responsibility is a recipe for chaos.

As we are still on the learning curve, we do not know how to cope with abuse on social networking sites. We know that these sites are very popular, fulfilling some needs we have but we need to learn about the psychology of users and how to promote responsible conduct on such sites. As consumers, we have power to persuade business to act responsibly for the benefit of all.

Let’s take an example: Sam wishes to open a forum on Facebook that promotes and celebrates rape. Sam’s chances of opening such a forum are extremely slim. I do not think Facebook would allow such a forum on its server. However, cyberbullying is a growing and highly disturbing phenomenon that has resulted in loss of many lives; still not enough is done to counter this phenomenon and see that it will become extinct.

Collectively, we have the power to influence Facebook and other companies to take more responsible steps against cyberbullying, bringing ISPs and web hosting companies to realize that cyberbullying is a very serious matter. No Net company should provide a forum to cyberbullying. Period.

Posting messages on social networking sites is easy and instant. Due to the ease of posting statuses, users react spontaneously to other statuses without much reflection. One possible idea to enable users more time to reflect and think before they hit the keyboard and post their messages is to introduce settings by which users will be asked to confirm that they wish to post the comment they had typed. This additional step may filter some of the statuses as further reflection may bring users to perceive their instant typing premature and not fully developed. Social networking sites may introduce this feature especially when discussion and exchange are developed, and more so when these become inflamed and aggressive.

Furthermore, monitoring strings of words to prevent verbal abuse requires effort and resources but this measure may save many lives.

MercatorNet: One of your key ideas is that while an open internet seems to be the finest flower of democracy, it could also destroy democracy. What are you getting at here?

Cohen-Almagor: This is what I call the Catch of Democracy. All forms of government contain the seeds of their own self-destruction. This is true for non-democratic governments. The principles of authoritarian, totalitarian, theocratic and other forms of government that are coercive in nature deny human autonomy and wish to dictate to people how they should lead their lives. People will rebel against oppression when the right opportunity presents itself.

I argue that the realisation that all forms of government contain the seeds of their own self-destruction is true also for democracy. The very principles of democracy might undermine it. Limitless liberty might lead to anarchy. Tolerating the intolerant might lead to coercion and violence. Respecting all conceptions of the good might harm the more vulnerable people in society. Freedom of speech is a fundamental right, an important anchor of democracy; but it should not be used without boundaries. Liberty and tolerance are not prescriptions for lawlessness and violent anarchy.

Like every young phenomenon, the internet needs to develop gradually, with great caution and care. This has not been not the case. During the last 30 years, one innovation supplemented another at a rapid pace without thinking carefully about the wider social implications. Since we lack Net experience, we are uncertain with regard to the appropriate means to be utilized to fight against abuse. We need to seek ways to accommodate different conceptions of the good, to reach compromises by which we will respect variety and pluralism and delineate the appropriate scope of tolerance.

MercatorNet: In the United States most journalists and scholars believe ardently that the First Amendment should protect even the vilest forms of hate speech. What’s your view?

Cohen-Almagor: The United States has adopted the most tolerant view in the democratic world on hate speech. American liberals believe it is better to have democracy that includes hate speech than a society that does not. American liberals hold that there is no need to panic or to be afraid of such vile ideas. Instead, we need to expose the falsity of hatred and educate to tolerance and equal liberties for all. The United States pays a price for tolerating hate as some of those speeches translate into hate crimes. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, over the past five years (2009-2014) users of one notorious website, Stormfront.com, were responsible for the murders of nearly 100 people. Words can hurt. Words can move people to action.

No other society in the world had adopted the American stance on freedom of speech. All other societies take hate far more seriously, and rightly so. The internet plays an instrumental role in spreading hate and in translating speech into action. It is not argued that hate speech necessarily leads to hate crime. Nor it is argued that the internet originated the hate phenomenon. The internet simply facilitates hate dissemination quickly and on a large scale.

The impact of cruel websites should not be ignored or underestimated. More and more evidence is gathered to show that the issue is not mere words. The internet attracts those who are prone to adopt hateful messages, and prompts people into action. It is by no means the only means to spread ideas and to push people to action, but one should not disregard or dismiss its significance and importance.

MercatorNet: How would the internet be different if we all acted as Net-Citizens, rather than as just passive consumers?

Cohen-Almagor: I make a distinction between Net-users and Net-citizens. The term “Net-user” refers to people who use the internet. It is a neutral term. It does not convey any clue as to how people actually use the internet. It does not suggest any appraisal of their use.

In contrast, the term “net-citizen” is not neutral. It describes a responsible use of the internet. Net-citizens are people who use the internet as an integral part of their real life. That is to say, their virtual life is not separated from their real life. They hold themselves accountable for the consequences of their internet use. In other words, net-citizens are good citizens of the internet. They contribute to the internet’s use and growth while making an effort to ensure that their communications and Net use are constructive. They foster free speech, open access and social culture of respecting others, and of not harming others. Net-citizens are Net-users with a sense of responsibility.

Net-citizens do not upload harmful and anti-social content onto the internet. Net-citizens alert others when they encounter violent and criminal conduct. Net-citizens strive to see that ISPs and web-hosting companies adopt responsible codes of conduct and adhere to them proactively. Net-citizens wish to ensure safe environment for themselves and for their children. Net-citizenship should be our collective future on the internet.

MercatorNet: As an Israeli and a Jew, you are much more alert to the contradictions involved in absolutist views of internet freedom. Most home-grown terrorists in the US learned their craft by accessing American ISPs. How should we deal with this?

Cohen-Almagor: Combating terrorist activities online demands resources and capabilities that most of us – normal citizens – do not have. The prime responsibility lies with ISPs, governments, and the international community at large. As terrorism is a global phenomenon, it is necessary to fight against it globally via diligent cross-country cooperation.

Like any other industry, there is a need to assure a certain security level on the internet. Many ISPs hosted terrorist sites and helped the cause of transnational jihad. Some did it knowingly while others did it inadvertently. InfoCom Corporation in Texas, for instance, hosted websites for numerous clients in the Middle East. Founded by Mousa Abu Marzook, a senior official in Hamas, it served more than 500 Saudi internet sites and notable Palestinian Hamas organizations, including the Islamic Association for Palestine and the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development. InfoCom also served to launder money from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states to sponsor Hamas activities.

While the InfoCom Corporation knowingly participated in terrorist activities, Fortress ITX unwittingly hosted a jihadi website that urged attacks against American and Israeli targets. This website was shut down when Fortress learned about the content from a reporter. To avoid playing into the hands of terrorists requires oversight and proactive steps.

Halting the flow of funds via the internet to terrorist organizations is a difficult and time-consuming task. Sites and accounts are closed and re-opened under different names very swiftly. As many terrorist organizations have set up charities in the real as well as the virtual worlds, multilateral bodies such as the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), which was established to combat money laundering and terrorist financing, are instrumental in sharing information about the global charitable sector, improving oversight of national and international charities, devising methodologies for detecting terrorists masquerading as charities, and establishing international standards to combat such abuse.

MercatorNet: Your book concludes with a very interesting suggestion: the creation of an open-source browser which would filter out illegal and morally repugnant material. How would that work?

Cohen-Almagor: My book concludes with my vision for a better internet. It offers a new paradigm internet for the future called CleaNet ©. CleaNet © will be sensitive to prevailing cultural norms of each and every society and will be clean of content that the society deems to be dangerous and anti-social. Net-users, with the cooperation of ISPs and web-hosting companies, will together decide which content will be considered illegitimate and unworthy to be excluded from CleaNet ©.

The idea of CleaNet © is very different from Net Nanny. Its rationale is based on principles of deliberative democracy, directly involving citizens in the decision-making processes on matters of public concern. It requires the setting of public reason institutions by which knowledge is exchanged and ideas crystallized via mechanisms of deliberation and critical reflections. Democratic procedures establish a network of pragmatic considerations and a constant flow of relevant information. The deliberations will be free of any coercion and all parties will be substantially and formally equal, enjoying equal standing, equal ability, and equal opportunity to table proposals, offer compromises, suggest solutions, support some motions and criticize others.

Whenever participants will aim to restrict speech, the onus for limiting free expression is always on those who wish to limit expression. One should bring concrete evidence to justify restriction. The speech must be dangerous and/or harmful. The danger and/or harm must be explicit. My assumption is that international consensus will exist about excluding certain anti-social material — child pornography, cyberbullying, the promotion of violent crime and terrorism from CleaNet ©.

On CleaNet ©, search engines will not keep their ranking algorithms secret. Quite the opposite. They will proudly announce, in a transparent and explicit way, that the ordering of search results is influenced by standards of moral and social responsibility, commitment to preserving and promoting security online and offline, and adherence to liberal principles we hold dear: liberty, tolerance, human dignity, respect for others, and not harming others.

The internet enables such direct participation of people, eliminates geographic distances and recreates direct Athenian-style democracy. It empowers good citizenship and public partnership in promoting shared social values and norms. As the internet affects the life of each and every one of us, we have a vested interest in attempting to have a social tool that enables the promotion of social good. It is argued that the internet will be stable in the long run only if Net-users generally perceive it as a legitimate instrument; only if the internet will be perceived as right and good, based on shared values and norms.

The assumption is that once people become aware of the advantages of CleaNet ©, they would prefer it over their present browsers. There will be growing open discussions about the merits and flows of the new browser.

The entire process of debating, implementing and browsing with CleaNet © will be transparent, opened for critique and feedback.

This is a rough proposal. I hope it will attract deliberations and challenges, evoke attention and gather momentum. With the participation of many concerned citizens in the deliberative process, CleaNet © may come to the world as a more refined tool, the result of collective minds aiming to construct a better future for our children and for future generations.

MercatorNet: My impression is that you are taking an ecological view of the internet. Like the environment, it is a public good that we have to pass on to our children better than when we found it. Do we have an obligation to think of the next generation?

Cohen-Almagor: This is like asking whether parents have an obligation to think of their children. For me this is a mere rhetorical question. Of course we need to think of the next generations. Not thinking of them is selfish and utterly irresponsible. If the preceding generations were not to care about future generations, then we would not exist. Given that we want to exist, responsible people would like to leave earth in a better shape for those who succeed them.

Raphael Cohen-Almagor teaches in the School of Politics, Philosophy and International Studies at the University of Hull, in the UK.

Raphael Cohen-Almagor (D. Phil., Oxon) is an educator, researcher, human rights activist and Chair in Politics, University of Hull, UK. He has published extensively in the fields of political science,...