THE first steps toward reclaiming the internet may well have been taken this week - on Wednesday evening to be precise, when the world’s social media giants began pulling the plug on Donald Trump amid the Capitol coup attempt in Washington.

Facebook, Instagram and Twitter - not known for care and consideration when it comes to democracy or decency - have now all suspended Trump indefinitely, after he issued missives, ramping up violence and hate, which led to his mob of loyal rioters storming the heart of American government.

It is hard to miss the irony, though, that it’s social media which helped Trump push America to the brink in the first place. But perhaps it takes near catastrophe to bring a chance of change.

One man who will be paying close attention to how social media adapts – or doesn’t – in the wake of the attack on American democracy is Professor Ron Deibert. If the world has a global watchdog when it comes to the ills of the internet, he’s it. Deibert, an expert in international security, has studied the web’s erosion of human rights and good government since its inception. He is the founder of Citizen Lab, the world’s most influential internet monitoring organisation, based at Toronto University.

Here’s a measure of just how important – and effective – Deibert’s outfit is: on December 20, Citizen Lab revealed a mass hack attack on Al Jazeera journalists orchestrated by Saudi Arabia and UAE – a direct assault on press freedom. That’s just one of Citizen Lab’s successes – it has revealed cyber-espionage on a grand scale globally, uncovered the targeting of human-rights activists and dissidents internationally, revealed internet censorship by governments, exposed digital surveillance by governments and private companies on citizens around the world, and been targeted by UAE intelligence over investigations into the murder of the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

After years of watching the internet being used to undermine truth, aid and abet authoritarians and dictators, and corrode democracy, Deibert believes we’ve only a small window of time left to fix the net – to change it so it does some good in the world and works for ordinary people. That’s why he has just written Reset: Reclaiming The Internet For Civil Society – a book destined to become one of the 21st century’s seminal political texts. It is a call to arms for citizens to force governments to take action against the evils the internet has created before it’s too late.

Let’s be clear: Deibert is no anti-internet luddite. He’s a cheerleader of the digital revolution. But he wants the internet to live up to its founding principles. The web was established as a tool for citizens to hold governments accountable, and for the free exchange of ideas without political interference. Instead, it has become a lie factory, a hate machine that’s corrupted truth and reality, now used by politicians to divide us.

Speaking to The Herald on Sunday, Deibert outlined the huge, difficult steps Western democracies must take to reclaim the internet as squirrels incongruously played in the snowy trees outside the window of his Toronto study.

The big idea

That moment on Wednesday when social media giants locked Trump out matters, because it represents the key to reclaiming the net – “friction”. Think of what lies at the heart of democracy – checks and balances on power. Checks and balances are sources of friction, they slow power down, restrain it. Courts rein in governments, regulators hold business accountable.

The key to fixing the net is to treat it as part of the democratic system – at the moment it sits outside democracy – and that means subjecting it to friction. When social media companies took Trump offline they subjected not just the president to friction, but themselves. Self-regulation is nowhere near enough, though. What democracies need, Deibert believes, is a system of checks and balances, overseen by strong independent regulators, which causes enough friction to tame the internet’s worst excesses.

The cesspool

We now live in a world of “surveillance capitalism”, says Deibert. “We’re farmed for our data. We’re the livestock.”

The business model that has grown up around the net is horribly simple: we get things free, like games and apps, and in return we’re surveilled – tech companies monitor us and use our data to make money from targeted advertising or political campaign operations. As a consequence, tech companies necessarily make their devices and software addictive.

It is “insidious”, says Deibert. “If you want to gather data on everything your users do then you need to make it interesting, and human nature being what it is, sensational, extreme, emotional content works best. So, business puts a lot of money into shaping not only the content but the nature of the devices we use, to be as addictive as possible.”

He calls it “Psychology 101”. “Behaviourism … we’re Pavlov’s Dogs. This is a real world experiment on billions of people.” Addiction and extremity are the twin pillars of surveillance capitalism.

As the threat of Big Tech becomes more obvious each day, what Deibert calls the “ecosystem of parasitic firms which orbit around the surveillance capitalism universe” exists out of sight – the firms which scrape data from our online activities, track us, study our psychological habits. Cambridge Analytica is perhaps the most infamous. But there are many more out there. Cambridge Analytica just became sloppy and got spotted. “These firms are exploding,” says Deibert, “blossoming.”

Firms now offering help with exams amid Covid are effectively running spyware against students, for example. Data is poorly secured – your personal information is leaking everywhere right now – and the technology which harvests data is “invasive by design”, Deibert says. It is a perfect recipe for those with bad intent – autocrats, spies, exploitative companies, manipulative politicians, criminals and hoaxers. “You couldn’t create a more perfect environment for exploitation,” says Deibert. “We’re going through a great leap forward in the abuse of power.”

Think of the Arab Spring. At first, it seemed social media had helped overthrow repressive regimes. But, says Deibert: “The autocrats drew the opposite lesson. They said ‘how can we prevent this happening again?’.” So, private firms and state intelligence agencies turned social media against the people. We’re all constantly online – easily monitored. “It’s profoundly unsettling for liberal democracy,” says Deibert.

We’re getting to a stage where it will soon be impossible to roll back the internet’s extremes. “You may recognise Facebook is a cesspool,” says Deibert, “but you need to use these technologies to simply exist today.” If something is both addictive and necessary it wields enormous power. Then add the notorious nature of “terms of service” to the mix. Who reads this stuff? Even if you do read it, says Deibert, you need a law degree to make sense of it. “It’s a marvellous contractual sleight of hand. In exchange for their products, they’re appropriating our data. And what is our data? It’s not just what I type. It’s our relationships, social preferences, physical wellbeing, movements, our most intimate thoughts and desires.”

The coming of neural networks –computers plugged into the brain – is no longer science fiction. Think of the privacy implications.

Cleaning the cesspool

We can’t turn off the internet – even if we wanted to, we’re too far down the digital path and technology never goes backwards. To fix the net we need to fix the business model. “This desperately needs regulation and the only way this can be done is by governments,” Deibert says.

Think of the Victorian railroad barons. Like then, we need to move against monopolies and start breaking up giant firms. In a functioning democracy, big is bad. “You want to prevent the concentration of power through the concentration of wealth in a few hands,” says Deibert.

But just breaking up Facebook isn’t enough. “You might end up with 20 little Facebooks,” Deibert points out. “It’s like breaking up a spiders’ nest, and you have all these little spiders.”

So, we need to create laws – and penalties – around how Big Tech (and those myriad parasitic firms) treats our data. That means regulators.

Deibert says we urgently need “truly independent outside oversight bodies which would have real teeth and be able to get inside the companies and look at their proprietary algorithms, identify areas where data is not being handled in ways which are transparent and publicly accountable, and issue strong fines. It’s not rocket science”.

Think of it like food regulation. We send inspectors into farms, factories, supermarkets and restaurants to make sure there’s no poison in what we eat – so do the same with tech.

The big challenge, evidently, is that the digital world is global and regulation national, but the Western democracies could take the lead, where repressive regimes won’t, and agree to hold Big Tech to the standards which the rule of law and the principles of human rights demand. It’s a job for Britain, Europe, America and Canada. Russia, Saudi, Iran – and the rest of the “transnational gangster class”, as Deibert calls such regimes – are enjoying a golden age thanks to digital chaos.

At the moment, though, given the political and financial power of Big Tech “we’re fighting upstream in a polluted river while trying to clean it”. It’s also convenient for Western governments to do nothing, as they too benefit from the internet’s excesses as the political manipulation sown online during Brexit and the Trump years proves.

The closing window

We’re getting dangerously close, though, to the window of time closing in which we can act. “We don’t need to think about some future dystopia,” says Deibert, “we’re living in dystopia now.”

He’s hopeful that change is coming, however. There’s a “dawning recognition that something is wrong when we look at the device in our hand”, Deibert says – and that’s why “there’s an opportunity” for action.

One of the biggest roadblocks to reform, though, is how the internet has accelerated debate to the point of absurdity. “It’s a bubbling swamp of chaos,” Deibert says. A book like Deibert’s might have dominated public discussion for months five years ago – today, debate moves so fast that same discussion might last barely a week. Real debate in the internet age has become impossible meaning politicians can ignore the demands of experts like Deibert. Truth, we know, has been eroded globally. Conspiracy theories are the digital DNA now. “Chaos benefits the corrupt,” says Deibert and we’re yet to see the true effect of deep fakes, for example, on our concept of reality. Countries like Russia “see social media as a giant disinformation laboratory”.

People power

Couple all this with the decline in investment in investigative journalism and it’s hard to see how we can really fight back against the corruption of fact wrought by the internet. One answer is “an informed citizenry”, says Deibert. “In order to have a functioning democracy, you can’t just have checks and balances, you need people who understand what it means to be a citizen – that can only come from education.”

As a university professor, Deibert is keenly aware of declining educational standards. There’s talk of teaching philosophy and critical thinking in schools so children learn what’s a fact and what’s propaganda. Deibert notes that philosophy departments shrink, while the business departments churning out graduates for online jobs boom.

Nevertheless, Deibert doesn’t despair. Any first-year history student knows that the ancient Athenians overcame far more arduous hurdles to establish their early democracy. They founded the system of restraints on power which we still use to govern our lives. But we’ve lost sight of the need to keep shoring up these restraints, Deibert feels, just at a time “when both companies and governments have access to godlike technology”. Instead of 21st-century checks and balances we’re still using “Victorian-era safeguards”.

But we can’t focus all our energies on Big Tech alone. If we only regulated private industry, but failed to regulate governments in a digital world, we would be no further forward in protecting ourselves. Just think of the power of government security agencies, from GCHQ to local police with facial recognition drones.

What’s needed is a Data Platform Accountability Act which could be replicated around the Western world, says Deibert, constraining governments and industry alike. What Deibert proposes isn’t some incredible new cyber theory – it’s old-fashioned democratic scrutiny updated for today. It’s back to that word “friction” again.

Real world violence

Facts once caused friction but we now live in an Alice in Wonderland world where facts are disputed, truth debated. “Falsehoods rain down,” says Deibert, “and then comes misinformation and disinformation – we’re in the midst of a torrent.”

Perhaps Big Tech needs compelled – by those regulators we’ve discussed – to add in more friction of its own when it comes to facts, just as the social media giants did with Trump during the Capitol riot.

Deibert points to action WhatsApp took when users sent messages inciting genocide in Myanmar. The company couldn’t get into encrypted messages but it “introduced friction by limiting the size of groups and the number of times a message could be forwarded … it artificially slowed things down”.

Maybe an army of fact-checkers –mandated by government regulators – and paid for by the likes of Twitter is another part of the toolkit for taming the internet? Fact-checking, says Deibert, is like “pest-control” for ideas. “If you don’t clean the kitchen the cockroaches keep coming back.”

When it comes to digital evils, we often forget the internet’s environmental impact – all those servers and data farms spewing out energy, the precious metals and minerals in our phones and computers. “It’s the new Blood Diamonds,” Deibert suggests. “Planned obsolescence” – the idea that the phone in your pocket is junk in two years – has to stop. It’s time to make do and mend.

Meat-space laws

The idea of foisting the onus for all these woes onto ordinary people is just wrong, though, says Deibert. We can’t be angry with people for failing to act so far – think how quickly the net revolutionised the world. In 25 years we’ve gone from typewriters to 5G. Nor will personally punitive actions, like forcing social media users to reveal their identities work. In fact, it will play into the hands of governments and despots by exposing whistleblowers, minorities and dissidents. There does, however, need to be a reaffirmation of respect and civility as values, Deibert goes on. Wearing the mask of social media isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card.

Offences online, Deibert believes, should be treated the same as they are in “real life”, so-called “meat-space”. If I defame you in the street, I’m punished. If I threaten to kill you in the street, I’m punished. The digital world shouldn’t be different. But we can’t simply treat social media like the BBC, Deibert believes. These are platforms for ordinary people to express opinions, not professional journalists reporting the news.

There is no single answer, Deibert says. We need a mix of legislation, regulation, and education. At the heart of the solution, though, is something we’ve known for thousands of years: power uncontrolled is dangerous. The internet has run wild for two decades. Trump was its worst excesses made flesh. As his toxic presidency ends, now is the time to act and reset the internet to what is was intended to be – a force for good. If we don’t act now, it will be too late, change will never come – the rot will set it forever, and years from now, we may look back on Trump with fond nostalgia for a better time.