Stories

America wakes up to the dark side of the internet

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser / Axios

For decades, the internet has been seen by most Americans as a democratizing force that makes life easier and more enjoyable. But the increase of instances of abuse on the open web is challenging our conventional notion of the benefits of the internet.

Why it matters: Advances in technology always create unforeseen consequences, which is why laws are usually written to address broad use cases. But recent incidents show that the country is reaching a tipping point, and regulators seem eager to revisit outdated policies to protect Americans from an internet turned ugly. How to go about that, however, is still unclear.

A year of reckoning: Very public abuses of the Internet by bad actors became national headlines this year.

  • There have been more breaches of personal information than ever before, exposing consumers' financial information, emails, purchase history, etc. — things we always thought would be safe locked behind passwords and security keys. The recent Equifax breach showed Americans just how vulnerable our identities are online. Identity theft hit an all-time high last year, with 41 million Americans reporting having their data stolen.
  • Foreign actors are using bots, fake accounts and social media to meddle in our elections and sow discord in the country. Russian-backed groups spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on illegal ads on Facebook, Twitter, Google and other tech platforms. More than 126 million Americans were exposed to Russian propaganda on Facebook.
  • Terrorism and threats to national security are unfolding on social media platforms, with bad actors spreading messages of hate and destruction with the aim of radicalizing people on our own soil. YouTube experienced a major advertiser boycott earlier this year in response to ads running against extremist content.
  • White nationalists, bigots and Neo-Nazis have found homes on the internet, organizing and collecting in private chat rooms and on social media, challenging the values and core principles of our society. A subculture that remained hidden online for years finally surfaced during the Charlottesville attack.
  • Studies show that teens suffer from increasing depression and anxiety due to social media and that smartphones are making teens feel isolated, immature, and suicidal.
  • More and more gruesome acts of violence and suicide are occurring on social media platforms that are struggling to take the content offline quickly enough. Facebook recently unveiled artificial intelligence technology to combat online suicide.
  • Child pornography and content not suitable for children is flourishing online, making the web a more dangerous place than ever for kids. YouTube published a blog post last week outlining their strategy to better protect families and kids on their platform from inappropriate and misleading videos.

What they're saying: Policymakers on the left and the right expressed concern this week about the downward spiral of some corners of the internet.

  • Rep. Anna Eshoo, who represents part of Silicon Valley, said at a hearing on algorithms yesterday that, while she cares about protecting free speech on social media platforms, "we also know there are bad actors that have used the best of what we have invested to divide us, and something needs to be done about that."
  • FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a speech to the Media Institute that web platforms are responsible for polarizing Americans politically and alienating them personally. Social media, he said, "has to some extent enabled the worst of human impulses," and he asked: "Is social media a net benefit to our society?"
  • Margrethe Vestager, Europe's chief competition regulator, told Recode that she's concerned about the lack of transparency and accountability around the algorithms used by tech giants. "This is the biggest wake up call we've ever had," she said. "If we don't relearn to trust technology, then we'll never make any good of the potential."

Internet users feel more vulnerable than ever, even though internet use and social media use continues to climb, per the Pew Research Center.

  • An Axios/SurveyMonkey poll found most Americans don't trust tech companies or the government to prevent foreign manipulation of online platforms to influence elections.
  • A majority of Americans (64%) say they have been a victim of a major data breach, according to Pew.
  • Roughly four-in-ten (41%) of Americans say they've personally experienced online harassment (up from 35% in 2014), and 62% consider it a major problem, per Pew.
  • Roughly half of Americans don't trust the government or social media sites to protect their personal data, per Pew.