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Net Neutrality and Fake News-Are ISPs Responsible for the Surge of Fake News?

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Erick, Online English teacher and business counsellor at Acadsoc.

Erick, Online English teacher and business counsellor at Acadsoc.

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The web is a world of its own, and Net Neutrality is a policy to keep the internet as what it is from the origin. Internet service providers (ISPs), who provide you with access to the internet, were not allowed to discriminate any data/website based on prices or other indicators by limiting access or loading speed. It enables all individuals, companies and organisations to view a full picture of information online. Some useful, some destructive, and in between – exploiting the grey-area that exists. However, is this policy providing a fertilised land to breed fake and misleading information?

newsworthy information on the internetEvery day there is a new sensation, taking the world by storm, creating trends, shifting the world into a different trajectory – but then there is an issue that exists, where the wrong information is published, affecting companies’ going concerns and most importantly, affecting the end-user as both an individual and consumer. Celebrities, businessmen, companies and countries have on many occasions been ‘mourned’ after their deaths have been falsely spread. The problem is that many of these stories are spread on such a constant basis that it is impossible to distinguish between truth and lies until it is a bit too late – when the creators of such fabrications have already benefited financially as scores of people have generated that traffic for them. On the other hand, though, such platforms have been seen as a good source of amusement for the avid reader, such as satire websites, and those that rely heavily on speculation (with an agenda) to spread possible scenarios as truth, just to get a specific reaction from people. There is definitely a lot of improvement to be made regarding regulating the internet and internet use because it can be destructive. Nevertheless, is Net Neutrality progress of fall back in internet regulation? In one side, politicians claim it is for defending democracy and freedom in the virtual world, while only 34% of Democrats and 11% of Republicans believed information from national news organisations was trustworthy in a 2017 survey of Pew Research Center.

The land of lawless

The land of lawlessThe internet does not have any stringent regulations, because after-all, it has no owner. The only forms of rule that exists are when governments restrict specific content for specific viewers concerning age and Internet giants’ self-discipline. More regulations are seen on the side affect the users, not the providers of content, and that is where the dangers start. What’s worse, there is no uniform regulation or agreement among famous brands such as Facebook, Twitter, Google and Instagram. Their actions are always too late without any executive/enforceable power after misleading news have widely spread. Usually, the most serious ‘punishment’ to fake news producer or suspicious spam is shutting down their accounts without any further movement.

Social media platforms such as Instagram or Twitter, they rapidly rose thanks to the convenience of send and share. In the background, however, looms accounts that are consistently generating what is now referred to as ‘click-bait’ or Internet trolling, in which just like a fish having a worm being dangled in the water, the users fall for that trap. In Twitter’s Rules regarding Trending, even Twitter officially admits ‘even if we prevent the hashtag or the content from appearing on the list of trending topics, you may still be able to access conversations around that content on Twitter.’ Their declaration on how Twitter may stop a topic from trending is: Only unlawful, sensitive(incite hate on religious, sex, national origin…) or abusive content will be banned by Twitter from trending. However, I failed to find any rules about ‘fake information’ or ‘baseless information’ in Twitter’s regulations.

Instagram seems to rule stricter than Twitter about newsworthy information. Yet still, Instagram only promises to remove violent, bloody or other unsuitable scenes for some age groups, not mentioning the accuracy or authenticity of news. Google released a new function called SafeSearch in 2000, facing public calls to exclude sexual and adult websites from its search result. Not a surprise, they tight their hands to take responsibility for accuracy of information. For instance, ‘Death Hoax’, fake posts/news reporting celebrities’ death can still be found in Google search result. Search ‘Bill Murray dies’ in Google, you will be able to see two sides, one claiming he is still alive while the other bet he is already dead. Can a visitor tell right from wrong easily in such occasions? Which side should I trust?

The furthest thing that these platforms can do is create user policies that each and every user can follow if they want to enjoy the benefits, but there is no material consequence for anyone who violates these policies. In an instance where someone is perpetuating views of a discriminative or destructive manner, the worst thing that could happen is their accounts being frozen or locked for a period of time in which they can ‘apologise’ for their transgressions and then gain access to their account again. Then the cycle just repeats itself. Most people do this for personal gain, as content that produces more traffic means more money through advertising.

As it has been noted previously, fake news can spread virally, in just a matter of hours. Over the decades the world has witnessed so many headlining stories that emanate from content producers exploiting the loopholes that exist on the internet. Some of these headlines affect governments, people’s lives, beliefs and many other aspects in-between, such as education. Some of the most notable false headlines in the past include:

Melania Trump has a body double: 2017

It has been a widely ‘accepted’ notion that the USA’s first lady has a clone that helps her keep up with the busy schedule of being the first lady. Pictures have been taken (from different angles of course) as ‘proof’ of these claims, but they conveniently leave out the inconsistencies in those claims – citing that the amount of money at the Trumps’ disposal may be to blame for the ‘good job’ done in cloning the first lady.

Hurricane Harvey brought a shark ashore in Houston: 2017

As a captivated nation watched as a historic storm ravaged the Texas coast, people around the country were sharing extraordinary images of Harvey and its aftermath. Except some of them weren’t real. There it was, the shark on a freeway in Houston (the doctored image has been online for years and made appearances during Hurricane Irene and Hurricane Sandy, but still managed to fool a Fox News host — who later apologised).[2]

Korea launches a nuclear missile in the direction of the USA: 2017

On the side of a controversy, headlines such as these spark political debates on purpose. This headline was shared on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, reaching billions of people in a short space of time. Had the governments reacted irrationally, who knows what could have happened.[3]

Should ISPs take responsibility?

In my opinion, abandon Net Neutrality could be the smartest decision signed by Trump. Average distribution of resource is never a path to fairness and justice. ISPs were once limited in a tiny room, merely as a puppet of politics. Net Neutrality eliminated the possibility of ISPs abusing their power by taking away almost all their rights and particularly, their obligation. As common sense, a service provider should hold responsibility for what offer to clients, why should ISPs be pardoned? Besides, social media and search engine themselves, as discussed above, are not yet strict and responsible enough in treating fake news. Facebook may seek to restrict the trending and spread of suspicious fake news in the future, but there is nothing to do with her competitors.

Critics worried ISPs will soon issue discriminative policies, assigning different bandwidth and access speed packages to various websites. Big companies and famous sites will doubtlessly win the bid by offering a higher price and enjoy higher loading speeds. Small business, personal blogs and newly founded domains may suffer from a lower access speed and lose impressions. I agree on their concern about damaging opportunities of small players on the internet. However, that’s not a convincible reason to keep Net Neutrality. More precisely, the state must engage in Internet service regulation,  but not in this way.

Data is neutral since birth, nor is information. Information differentiates from data because it carries meaningful and processed messages to visitors. ISPs should treat data equally, giving everyone the same right and convenience to access data. Notwithstanding, like Google judges PageRank of different websites, ISPs should judge ranking of information on the internet, based on their quality, not bidding price. In a word, ISPs ought to discriminate low-quality, baseless and suspicious spam/fake/ illegal/discriminative information by limiting their loading speed or even ban their webpage.

Why Google ranks different websites from 1-10 in a search result instead of letting them appear ‘equally’ to visitors? If visitors can easily access a high-quality and highly relevant webpage after what he/she has searched for, they are more likely to use Google search once again. Imagine if Google puts a suspicious fake spam post as the top search result for a frequently used keyword, what will happen? They will lose customers and face a negative impact on reputation. By doing so, Google is sending a clear message to all website owners: Please improve and optimise the quality of your website and content. Unless you are willing to bid on Google Ads(visitors can quickly identify if it is an advertisement or organic search result in Google) or you don’t care about the ranking at all. There is no government rules or act enforcing Google to rank their search result in such a way. ISPs are similarly private companies and profit lovers just as Google, which indicates they have the instinct to maintain a good reputation for loyal clients, too. To avoid a price war, monopolistic Internet environment and abusive power among ISPs, the state shall call up Industry Associations and more lawmaking, targeting on practical constraints and supervision.

The debate continues to grow, but is the current state of the internet a result of an oversight by its creators? Should governments play an integral role in finding mutual solutions and consequences of those who perpetuate false news? Also, who would be on the board of such a regulative authority, and how would we be sure that they would not use their power and influence to further their own hidden agenda? These questions continue to plague us when we think of the current state of the internet, where even our personal information is not that safe. Take a look at allegations facing Facebook right now when personal information is bought and sold without the users’ consent. The best thing we can do right now is educating ourselves about policies and how they work for each and every platform we are using – that may shed light in weighing the positives with all the negatives, giving us a clear direction on how to react, validate and not share false and prejudicial information. As much as we look to be protected through regulation, we also have a role to play as users.

Abolishing Net Neutrality is not an end, but a beginning for law and public, to assure high-quality websites, no matter in which sizes or how long it has been founded can enjoy fair access speeds and bandwidths. Meanwhile, fake news, spam posts and their container, the website owner, must be punished by limiting the access speed and decreasing website rank.

[1] https://lawandcrime.com/race-relations/police-lodge-vandalized-and-spray-painted-with-black-lives-matter/

[2] https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2017/08/29/hurricane-harvey-shark-photo-fake-and-part-bigger-problem/612601001/

[3] https://nypost.com/2018/01/16/japan-sends-false-alarm-about-n-korean-missile-launch/

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