Is it time for a global body to manage the internet?


Facebook has become the anti-social network overnight. But, more than anything else, it has finally made us all sit up and ask who owns our data? It is much worse than you think. We have all conspired to make it so by signing up for Apps and ticking those hundreds of pages of “rights”, none of us read, which give Facebook and everyone else, including even The Times and The Guardian, our data to sell to their advertisers.

Next year, Facebook’s take of the UK media economy will be close to £4bn which will be just over £1bn more than the BBC licence fee. Fundamental disruptive change has definitely arrived.
For sure, the BBC’s future is numbered as it is currently constituted. And we might all feel a tad happier if Facebook paid its UK taxes. Substitute Facebook with Cambridge Analytica and the latter seemingly has done just the same for global politics. The running for cover of its CEO suggests that we have not yet seen the whole picture. In Washington, DC there are a number of investigations by Congress running concurrently about Fake News and the last Presidential Elections. And Fake News is now a serious enquiry in Brussels.

Data is what makes the new world of the web go round. Data is what Facebook owns. You might shut your own Facebook account down as I did but then you are faced with shutting down all those other entities they own including Whats App and Instagram. It is exactly the same with Google, owning You Tube and a host of other entities. There is a philosophical difference in Europe and in America about the notion of privacy and data. Put simply, Europe wants the citizen to own their data, the USA does not. Their argument is we give up our rights for a free service. I am sure we would be happy to pay a subscription. The pace at which Europe is moving on this argument makes our own feeble efforts embarrassing. But Europe is right and after Brexit it is not clear whether we will be a party to their work.

We have seen monopolistic behaviour before but we have not seen it on a global scale. And whilst it would be possible for the Federal Communications Commission in Washington,DC to rule on Facebook et al, it could only do this for the USA, it could not do it for the rest of the world. Hence, the need for a kind of International Court at The Hague. I would suggest the UK would be well placed to host it (but we need to act quickly, see above). We gave the world the British Council and the BBC World Service what better way to complete the trio with a Global Internet Forum. However, hold your breath as America is not a member of the IC at The Hague. It dislikes world organisations. In the 1920s, Hollywood owned the film, United Artists owned the talent, the cinemas were owned by the same share holders which owned the film. There was vertical integration and no competition. In short, Hollywood had all the means of production, a virtual monopoly. Gradually this was broken up by Congress.

Like BT, AT&T (and the Bell System) owned the whole of the telco infrastructure; the lines, the telephones, the rentals and the charges for calls. If you visited the USA before 1984, it was a joke trying to place a long distance call inside America and internationally. The Bell system for local calls was broken up into Baby Bells. It had been mandated by Congress following a case started in 1974 by the Justice department that AT&T was operating a virtual monopoly. I suspect under the next Democratic President of America, anti trust lawsuits will be in favour again. There is no question that the new “anti-social” networks are going to be broken up. It is just a matter of time unless shareholder pressure can be brought to bear. But, how will these global players be broken up globally?

When we look at the end of the Second World War, the victors created the UNO, the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO. They were run by the victors of that war for the victors which is why they all had their own veto powers at the UNO. It is an absurdity. They have had their day. My take is that a new global organisation for the internet would be the dry run for replacing these other agencies. Facebook may yet be the catalyst for governments to come together to create an independent global body for the internet.

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