The Internet, and Its Challanges


The internet is possibly the greatest invention of our generation. Transcending the barriers that geography has placed around us in the most brilliant of ways. The internet is new, and strikingly so; Google (1 billion unique visitors per month) was founded in 1998, Facebook (870 million) founded in 2004, YouTube (790 million) is turning a spritely 7 this month, having been founded in 2005.

Step back and think about this. Visits to Google number one billion, that amounts to just under the population of the EU and North America combined, in 12 years. I was born 18 years ago. I remember when dial-up internet was a standard. I am of the first generation that used these sites from early childhood. It is bizarre for me to think of living in a world without them. Yet, many people did, and many find it equally unreal to think of a world with them. EU Data Commissioner, Neelie Kroes, once said something that made a huge amount of sense to me: “treat the internet as though it is real life, and you will find the answer to the problems that it faces so much easier”. So, I will try to explain the current situation with the internet in the language that all of us understand.

To start, let’s talk about Facebook, Google and YouTube. To my mind, Google is the rough equivalent of asking the school librarian who isn’t very good at general knowledge, a question. The librarian may not know the answer but he/she knows where you will find the information you are looking for.  YouTube is like that person who is gifted at coming up with quick jokes and sketches.

A common mistake with Facebook is to assume that it is like a room full of people sitting in silence until someone does something. However, Facebook isn’t like that. It is more fluid. There is a constant flow feel to the news feed, things are always happening, friends talking, photos being shown, people doing things. It is like a lunch table, everyone is sitting together, and people are talking in groups or as a table in general. When looked at in this way, those “random exclamations” make a lot more sense. Far from being ‘random’, they are just new strings of conversation.

‘Illegal downloading!’ you may cry. For this, imagine kids playing with a trading card game, I’m sure we have all at some point in our lives done that. However, this one is slightly different.  Say if one of the kids in the school created this game. During lunch and break he sells packs of these cards for a bit of extra pocket money. Imagine now, if you will, that another kid in the school has the idea of letting everyone have these cards, so he goes and photocopies his decks in the secretary’s office and begins handing them out to anyone who wants them for free. Of course, the kid who initially created the game is losing out on money, not to mention the poor return on his time. Arguably however, everyone already has a few, and might never have wanted all of the packs, therefore they probably would never have bought more, or maybe they are just thinking of it, but aren’t that interested in spending yet more money.

In my opinion, this is what internet downloading is like. For sure, the media companies lose out on sales, but a large majority of the people are usually unable to or unwilling to buy yet more of the product even if it were readily available. The market is arguably saturated. This is why it could be argued that the “estimated 500 million worth of damages” cause by MegaUpload could be wildly inaccurate and untrue. Seen against this background, ACTA (Anti Counterfeiting Trade Agreement) looks like the stuff of nightmares. I’m not sure about you, but the suggestion that I should be able to be followed in everything that I do, effectively stalked in my internet use by the government, regardless of whether I have anything to hide or not, is ridiculous. Personally, I don’t have anything to hide, but I would never want to be followed anyway.

As part of a Youth Advisory Body on Internet Security, INSAFE, operating both in Ireland and Europe, I am struck how people think of internet-based behaviour as different from real-life. People do bad things, and whether they do it in real life or on the internet they are still the same person. Whenever we try to create distinctions, I feel we show our lack of understanding of the problem.  A parent wouldn’t immediately go from not letting their child out of sight to allowing them to wander town on their own. These things start slowly, perhaps with first going to the corner shop with friends, then a little more freedom and a little more, until they know how to stay safe. Why then must people assume it shouldn’t be the same on the internet? Surely the solution is the same? We start small and build up. Undoubtedly, there are different threats on the internet, however, in my opinion, there are fewer. I have been randomly mugged while walking down a road, minding my own business, I was punched in the face and barely managed to run away.  I have not, contrary to what some people believe happens all the time, ever been approached by someone I don’t know on the internet. Although this happens without a doubt, I know how to keep myself safe because I was taught how to by my parents and my school, in the same way as they taught me about “stranger danger” as I walked to and from my school every day.

The thing is, the internet is here to stay. It is growing and intertwining more and more into our daily lives and we are increasingly unable to live without it. The problems of the internet range far and wide, but that is because we aren’t yet even sure how this internet thing can be controlled and stabbing blindly with ACTA isn’t going to help. Returning to Neelie Kroes’ comment once again, can you see how the internet is real life, it is used by real people, so why do we look for unreal solutions?


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