The Internet, Warts and All: Free Speech, Privacy and Truth

Author: Paul Bernal

Publisher: Cambridge University Press

Publication date: August 2018

Format: Hardback

Price: RRP £85

(discounted from Amazon)


The Internet, Warts and All asks questions. Why are government digital policies so often out of touch and counter-productive? Why is surveillance law problematic and ineffective – and often defeated in court? Do companies like Google and Facebook really care about freedom of speech? Why are neither laws nor technology companies able to get to grips with trolling? Is ‘fake news’ something that can be ‘dealt with’? Can these issues be addressed more effectively, intelligently and appropriately in the future? To answer these questions, The Internet, Warts and All busts a number of myths and illusions about the internet – about the neutrality of algorithms, the permanence of information, the impact of surveillance, the nature of privacy and more. It shows how trolling and ‘fake news’ arise – and why current moves to deal with them are doomed to failure. It suggests a way forward – by embracing the unruly nature of the internet.

Review in Internet Newsletter for Lawyers

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 author

Paul Bernal is Senior Lecturer in IT, IP and Media Law at the University of East Anglia.