Cyberspace once appeared, as propounded by cyber libertarians, to be the world within which we would be able to live freely, that is, without any sort of reprimand or constraint and without the interference of any authority. Cyberspace is the world beyond the physical and, found behind the screen, it encompasses every aspect of life from interactions and entertainment to education and banking. The physical society we live in has gradually been shifted onto the digital world. The more crowded this space became, however, the more required regulations are to maintain a certain decorum. Lawrence Lessig’s terms our evolved existence within this regulated online world as “pathetic dots”. In many ways, the online society has evolved to reflect the functions and management of our real society in the physical world. We are no longer free electrons in an infinite medium; we have become, as Andrew Murray puts it, a “communitarian network.” Everything that exists in the physical world has quite literally been duplicated onto the virtual world, including society itself and states of recognition, famously denoted by the ‘blue tick’ on social network applications.
The initial lawlessness of the space meant that there was no crime, for it is only through the law that we can determine crime. It first appeared to fit into the same category as planets and the moon, where there is no country whose laws prevail. One would think one could get away with any activity otherwise deemed criminal in the physical world. It is the infinite space where one loses oneself in the limitless depths of the web and yet remains strong in one’s identity, wants and opinions.
Our actions within cyberspace are always somewhat thinly veiled by a degree of anonymity, and therefore we have the impression of them not being seen by anyone, not being stored and not affecting anyone who might come across them. Pressing the ‘Enter’ button is not synonymous with talking face-to-face to someone. Absolute freedom online cannot be a reality, and the law plays a regulatory role to constrain our actions— facts that do not differ much from how we behave and are constrained in real life. We are subject to copyright and defamatory laws, and, depending on the country, blasphemy laws are also implemented. The law here does not have a normative value. Social norms and etiquette do not materialise online the same way they do in the physical world. For instance, one should not smoke in a closed space out of respect for those in proximity, but that situation does not arise in the cyberworld. Cyber laws mostly have a punitive function whereby an infraction of the laws leads to a civil or criminal lawsuit. Law then has more of a regulatory role that has to adapt and cater to changing technological, social and other legal advancements. This also requires a high degree of flexibility and creativity from the judges, which is a difficult task to implement, especially because there may be next to no precedent.
The cyberworld is not merely occupied by middle-aged educated people; it is easily accessed by the older and younger generations, and there really is no criteria for one to exist online. This Covid-19 pandemic has catalysed the integration of technology in our lives, and our schooling and work can all somewhat be entirely accomplished online. Whole careers have been formed on online platforms, especially with the rising popularity of TikTok. Fame, previously a state of recognition stars would take years to achieve, can today be attained online in a matter of a few millions of likes and followers on the most basic non-talented content. TikTok was primarily aimed at younger generations, and it is easy for children to use the application by falsifying their age. The personal information of these underaged users is stored by the application and sold to third companies to enable personalised advertisements. This processing and storage of their information is not at the express and valid consent of the underage user, as children are not considered competent enough for such informed decisions. Concerns were also raised regarding the presence of paedophiles on these younger generation-dominated platforms, Facebook, Instagram and TikTok, as they are perfect platforms to target and bully the young.
Acts should then be legislated to hold people accountable. It would be dangerous to allow the cyber libertarian school of thought to prevail in such cases; it can easily be taken undue advantage of. The social and political climates of the country have also stepped into cyberspace. Blasphemy laws are a perfect example of what a country decides is acceptable or not. Furthermore, Cambridge Analytica has claimed that the 2016 US elections were highly influenced by political advertisements aiming to change viewers’ perceptions. For this, the personal data of Facebook users were processed by a second company which constructed a profile of the user and presented advertisements best suited to play with the user’s psyche.
The active role of the state —whether negative when trying to politically influence ‘netizens’ during electoral periods, or positive when setting parameters of behaviour by implementing the law— is in stark contrast with the cyber libertarian school of thought set by John Perry Barlow in 1996. Dots, as we should call ourselves, are all interconnected to form a network, like carbon atoms are in diamonds. For the aforementioned school to properly function, it would be expected of us to not misbehave or disrespect social norms which already exist in the physical world. Norms do not originate from a single source; they are developed over time to act as a social code.
The online network is a mix of cyber libertarian and cyber paternalist schools of thought. The former believes in the power and agency that the dots themselves hold. To a certain extent, they have the freedom to act and connect themselves to some extent. For instance, resorting to the dark web or downloading content on illegal websites can still go unnoticed, and there are multiple ways to disable being tracked or to escape liability. The cyber paternalist school, however, tilts towards the regulation of the whole network itself. It invokes a more serious degree of responsibility, as the dot is inherently part of the network. The installation of filters to prevent some type of content from entering the respective nation’s users’ virtual space is a manifestation of cyber paternalistic approach. Cyber libertarianism would also allow for people to engage in activities that are otherwise deemed criminal in the physical world; this power that a dot can exert has not been delved into by Lawrence Lessig.
Cyber paternalism and cyber libertarianism are the two ends of the space’s spectrum of management. Neither absolute freedom nor an excessive restriction of expression benefits the users. The erratic dot cannot be allowed to cause mayhem, but it should also not be squared into a corner. The cyberworld, like the physical world, is all about balance.