Internet: Powerful, needs supervision


The spurious social-media illusion that everybody lives like Hollywood celebrities, puffed-up internet influencers, oligarchs, and rock stars has the unfortunate effect of encouraging false expectations, unrealistic lifestyles, depression and sometimes anger. Think of teens influenced by the likes of the Kardashians.

For many, social media has whetted an appetite for the wares of the world, and these digitally fueled fantasies are a self-fulfilling prophecy where beliefs often result in ruinous behaviors.

Suicide rates are up significantly in the United States with 49,500 in 2022, according to a report on Public Television. Guns yes, but a whole lot of depression.

Many teenage girls around the world are depressed as a result of their internet experiences, and many teenage boys live in the fantastical world of digital gaming and are hard pressed to re-enter the world of reality.

There’s a lot of remarkable stuff on the internet, but without careful use and parental controls, the good can also reside side-by-side with the bad and the ugly.

One of the developmental aspects of the internet that I find intriguing is how parochial internet states are emerging. China’s “Google” for example, Baidu, is largely a Chinese phenomenon with 99% of its revenue coming from domestic use and about 1% coming from global use. It’s heavily censored, depriving Chinese citizens of valuable information that the government doesn’t want its citizens to see and hear, including pornography.

Google on the other hand has more than double Baidu’s revenue, 55% of which comes from Europe, Asia-Pacific, Africa and the Middle East.

Other separate internet spheres include places like Russia and Iran. Although Google per se is not banned in Russia, Russia has heavily censored Google news since the outbreak of the Ukrainian War and has banned Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and Twitter (now “X”). Russia’s lackluster search platform is called “Yandex.”

Iran’s heavily redacted search platform is called Parsijoo. Google is blocked in this Islamic state, as are Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Netflix and HBO to name a few popular international apps.

These various international internet spheres suggest different consequences for global communities. In the U.S., the internet’s social effects can be problematic, but controls to mitigate harmful effects in democracies can have the potential chilling effects present in authoritarian states, like Baidu in China.

Limiting access to the unfiltered world of information available on the internet is an intellectual and innovative drag on Chinese development, and its restrictive telecommunications environment is manifest in its relationship to the internet’s building blocks, semi-conductors. Government controls on information and research have inhibited China’s ability to compete in high-tech innovation.

China’s national security is hampered by its inability to produce cutting-edge silicon chips. Its copy or steal approach to these technologies have made them dependent on Taiwan’s TSMC, Samsung, Intel, Micron, AMD and Texas Instruments for the silicon chips that help to drive their economy and military industrial complex. They have neither the chip design capabilities nor the chip fabrication capabilities which puts them in a serious military and economic disadvantage. President Biden’s new executive order banning U.S. sales of such high-tech chip technology to the Chinese is a significant hit to Chinese interests.

It’s not hard to imagine a world where the citizens of authoritarian nations are intellectually and developmentally crippled by limited access to information, opinions, research and debate, all of which flow freely in democratically governed nations. This will become an increasingly problematic issue for totalitarian nations whose strongmen are threatened by the free speech that flows on the internet.

But our internet challenges are not insignificant. Misinformation, lies and malicious disinformation can do serious harm in free speech societies like ours. Yelling “fire” in a movie theater for the fun of it is not protected free speech, but would its equivalent on the internet be tolerated?

Navigating our way through these internet challenges while being true to our democratic institutions and our constitution will be one of the challenges of our age. The internet can be an incredible public utility, but its temptations and addictions can have debilitating effects if not managed with common sense controls. Parents, teachers, coaches, community leaders and faith-based organizations all need to step up and be proactive in social and political leadership in these internet of things.

The reality of the internet is not that of an unbridled utopian wonderland where anything goes. Like any powerful tool, it needs supervision.

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