Burning Platforms: Whatever happened to the free web?

On this Burning Platforms we ask 'Whatever happened to the free web?' The internet promised new ways to challenge power and privilege, so how has it become a tool to promote division and entrench despots?

Key points:

  • A new rush to buy real estate and financial assets in the metaverse are posing questions about how we govern this new space, with first movers and vested interests land-grabbing before we've had a chance to think through what fair use, access and control should be.
  • Tech bosses like Twitter's Jack Dorsey are throwing their weight behind web3, blockchain and DAOs (decentralised autonomous organisations) being a transformative new phase of the global web. Many people have been caught in the hype cycle, including a messy example of an attempt to buy the American constitution as a digital asset.
  • The Morrison government has announced a new social media anti-trolling bill, with a focus on identifying anonymous commenters online. Rights activists are worried about discarding the right to anonymity which is critical for whistleblowers, dissenters and other potentially vulnerable individuals. However this needs to be balanced with the real damage generated by harmful comments online, and the weaponisation of comments by coordinated bots/trolling activity. Another point of consideration is the government's motivation for such a bill, which should be reflected on.
  • Elaine Pearson, the Australian director of Human Rights Watch is also worried less democratic countries will take this bill as a model to follow for their own more autocratic purposes, so Australia should think more broadly about its regional responsibilities and the implications of this bill.
  • Australia's cybersecurity "quad" alliance on technology should be scrutinised for human rights abuses, particularly in India with a growing record of human rights breaches. 
  • The importance of having local, on the ground moderation with awareness of cultural sensitivities was shown during the recent incident in Gaza where Facebook was wrongly removing comments. There is also the larger political context within different countries, where even democratic countries like Israel and India abuse technology for their own purposes.
  • Using technology as a tool for surveillance and human rights abuses is accelerating, not only in the widely recognised examples in China (e.g. against the Uyghurs), but also in democracies like Israel (e.g. discriminating against Palestinians in security checks). 
  • Another underreported side of developing surveillance technology is that although many are developed in Western countries like the US and Australia with a greater awareness of their abuse potential, the technology is also being exported and sold to other countries with less protections against human rights abuses.


You can also listen to this session as a podcast below: