The Internet, Warts and All

The Internet, Warts and All: Free Speech, Privacy and Truth by Paul Bernal is not a law book; it is a book about seeking to understand an environment – the internet – in which the law operates. It is a book about law, but “It is also … about technology, about politics, about psychology, about society, about philosophy.” Regulating the internet impacts all these.

Whilst the internet started off as a communications medium and an information resource and, for business, a marketing opportunity, it now underpins almost every aspect of our lives and is integral to the way our society operates. We need to face up to and accept the fact that the internet really is a mess. The way through this mess requires balances and compromises which change as the technologies develop.

Paul argues for “community-based symbiotic regulation”: “a subtler and more nuanced” form of regulation needs to be adopted appropriate to the “messy, unruly, complex, interlinked and dynamic environment that is the internet.”

To set the background for the ensuing discussion, he first exposes three myths and asks questions:

  • the illusion of permanence – who should control what lasts?
  • confusion over perfection – who should guide us through this imperfect and unreliable archive?
  • the neutrality myth – can corporations be neutral?

Subsequent chapters examine in depth the many issues relating to free speech, privacy, surveillance, trolling and fake news currently facing us in our use of the internet and challenging the existing legal and regulatory framework.

The many case studies cited illustrate in some cases what works, but in many cases what doesn’t. For example, the section on the failure of the Samaritan’s Radar app demonstrates how misunderstandings of how technologies and platforms work lead to unintended consequences, sometimes with the opposite effect to that intended.

The internet is a massively diverse and complex place. Myths, misconceptions and misunderstandings about how it “works” abound and the power the internet giants wield is immense. Paul seeks to guide us towards how it might be tamed.

This book is an absorbing read for anyone concerned about the power of the internet. It deserves a much wider audience than its price tag suggests it might achieve.

The Internet, Warts and All: Free Speech, Privacy and Truth by Paul Bernal, Senior Lecturer in IT, IP and Media Law at the University of East Anglia. Published by Cambridge University Press August 2018, 302 pp hardback £85, ebook £73.50 including VAT. Also via Amazon.