The Letter - James Tissot

The Letter, James Tissot, 1878. 

Asking whether the Internet is good or bad is like asking whether the wheel was a good or bad invention. It was bound to happen eventually, so debate should focus on how it can be best used.

In the late 1960s, an American defense bureaucrat realized that the solution to the problem that two computers in his office were programmed differently was to get them to share data using the phone system. It was a bit like Alexander Graham Bell’s original invention of the telephone system.

Once you had it, you could immediately see all sorts of uses. But those uses could be good or bad. Joseph Stalin, after all, was called Genghis Khan with a telephone.

The Internet is no different. It levels information access the way the phone made distance disappear. You and I can find out the same things as a learned professor can. That doesn’t mean we’ll understand what we are reading or make a constructive use of it. And if we can do that, so can anyone else.

This story whistled past the desk a couple of days ago:

“Feds ask Canadian telecoms to disclose private customer information 1.2 million times a year, docs show.” If you think this happens only in Canada, revise your thinking. It is legal to protest it in Canada.

One problem is that often the reasons for massive privacy invasion sound like good causes. For example, in Canada,

The parents of three teenagers who took their own lives because they were bullied gave emotional pleas before a Commons committee today in favour of legislation to protect Canadians from online crime, but appeared divided on whether Bill C-13 violates the right to privacy.

The measures would allow police access to the “metadata that internet service providers and phone companies keep on every call and email.”

There may be people out there who believe that governments would never misuse the information.

Some governments will certainly try to use the Internet to bring about various thinkers’ private versions of utopia through greatly increased monitoring of citizens’ behaviour, while claiming to seek a privacy balance.

Here’s a thought: The fact that no one is for teen suicides from cyberbullying should actually cause more reflection than it does. Too often the legislation that works out worst got started to address problems that everyone agrees are problems. So everyone feel they should support the legislation. Only a few people hang around long enough to find out what really happens afterward. This is not a prophecy, just a warning.

Denyse O’Leary is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger.

Denyse O’Leary is an author, journalist, and blogger who has mainly written popular science and social science. Fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan’s description of electronic media as a global village...