Towards a safer and more responsible Internet

Jagdish N Singh

One of the inevitable lessons history teaches us is that intellectuals must remain constantly vigilant and come forward with such ideas and tools as would defend and promote the noble institutions and inventions we have inherited from our previous generations. In his ground-breaking book Confronting the Internet’s Dark Side: Moral and Social Responsibility on the Free High Way Raphael Cohen-Almagor, Professor and Chair in Politics at the University of Hull, United Kingdom, has performed precisely this enlightened scholarly function. He has suggested in this enterprise how to address challenges posed by misuse and abuse of the Internet, a great invention for the benefit of humanity in our times. In the focus of his analysis are antisocial activities: terrorism, cyber-bullying, child pornography, hate speech, and cybercrime.

The British professor rightly observes the Internet provides cheap, instantaneous and anonymous distribution in multiple locations. It has, however, no central management or coordination. Certain hate groups find it handy in carrying out their acts of anti-social behaviour. They use websites to share their ideology of hatred, link to similar sites, recruit converts, advocate violence and threaten all those sections of humanity who do not conform to their thinking .

Cohen-Almagor has argued that the social conscience of individuals, corporations, state and the international community needs to be invoked to address the malady of the Internet misuse. He implores Internet gate-keepers to adhere to the Promotional Approach (PA) rather than to irresponsible content-neutrality, promoting social, humane, civil, moral norms on the Internet.  Cohen-Almagor calls upon ISPs and web-hosting services to promote on the Net the basic ideas of respect for others, and not harming others.

He argues that social-networking sites should scrutinize content and discriminate against illegal content (child pornography, terrorism) as well as against clear morally repugnant and hateful content – racism and cyber-bullying. A new voluntary browser called CleaNet may be established.  Under this browser and by utilizing tools of deliberative democracy Netusers in liberal democracies would agree on what constitutes illegitimate expression to be excluded from this new, socially-responsible browser. CleaNet would facilitate a safer and more responsible surfing of the Internet.

The author pleads that Net users and Internet Service Providers act like responsible citizens of the online world. His main argument is for striking a balance between two important values: freedom of expression, on the one hand, and social responsibility, on the other. We all have a moral responsibility to confront those who abuse the new technology to spread the culture of hatred and violence. Or else, the very values that have given rise to the freedom of expression through the Internet would themselves be in peril.  Aberrations (hatred and violence)might destroy the very democratic process (the idea of freedom) itself.  

Cohen-Almagor suggests, “With the right cooperation the international community has the capabilities to address the formidable challenges and provide appropriate answers. Failure to cooperate is inexcusable. Without responsible cooperation, Net abusers will prevail and our children will suffer. Nations and responsible Net-citizens are obliged to ensure that  future generations will be able to develop their autonomy, their individuality and their capabilities in a free but also secure environment, both offline and online” (p. 306).

The author is optimistic. He says, “the tide of pro-active Corporate Social Responsibility is rising and now is a good time for corporate officers to join the flow” (p.326).The author notes that several efforts have been made by the US and other states indicative of the growing sense of international responsibility to contain violent and criminal activities (pp.275-306). In 2001, American Attorney General John Ashcroft and Chief Postal Inspector Kenneth Weaver announced Operation Avalanche to arrest child pornographers. In 2000, the Hoover Institution, the Consortium for Research on Information Security and Policy, the Centre for International Security and Cooperation and the Stanford University recognized "cyber-crime is transnational and requires a transnational response" (p. 277).Since 2001, under the leadership of the European Commission, law enforcement agencies, major ISPs, telecom operators, civil liberties organizations, consumer representatives, data protection authorities and other interested parties are acting together to combat cybercrime (p.277).

Pertinently, in September 2014 the US State Department of State Bureau of Counter-Terrorism listed 59 terrorist organizations. More than forty of them were established by radical Islamic groups. The majority of these terror organizations use the Internet as a primary tool for their activities. The number of pro-terrorism websites is estimated to have increased from approximately 12 in 1998 to more than 4800 by 2010. There is extensive literature on hacking strategies, encryption methods, bomb making and allied activities on their sites(pp. 179-180).


The author’s diagnosis of the evil is accurate and commendable indeed. It offers a globalanalysis of some of the most troubling uses of the Internet.  The author’s nine-year research for this book has involved extensive survey of literature on free speech, media ethics, problematic speech on the Internet, government position papers, state laws, court cases, and law-enforcement measures. He has conducted informed discussions and semi-structured interviews in Canada, France, Israel, the United Kingdom and the United States with key policy makers, parliamentarians and public officials, security and police officials, legal scholars and justices, media and Internet experts, and representatives of human rights and free speech NGOs. 

The book is a must read for researchers, policy planners as well as laymen who are interested in social responsibility on the Internet. The Internet is one of the finest means for education, communication, entertainment and commerce in our times.  It has fostered unprecedented advancement in our productivity and engagement. Ironically, however, the crooks, terrorists and the bigots have been misusing this tool to spread violence and hatred. They have been using social media  sites--  Facebook, Twitter, YouTube etc. -- to promote racism, casteism, sectarianism,  homophobia,  misogyny and allied vices. This thoughtful and well-argued book should help in checkmating such misuse.

Pertinently, the prescriptions given in the book should be helpful to India’s current government as well. Like one of his eminent predecessors Rajiv Gandhi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is aware of the need to bridge the digital divide in India today.  Recently , he was in the Silicon Valley meeting important Internet giants, including Google’s Sundar Pichai, Microsoft’s Satya Nadella, Apple’s Tim Cook,  Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to rope them all in to achieving  this goal. At the same time,New Delhi seems to be interested in combating the misuse of the Internet. Whilethe Government withdrew its controversial draft encryption policy that proposed to make it mandatory for every citizen to save all digital communications, including emails and chats for a period of 90 days, India leaders are acutely aware of the security challenges that the Internet poses.The Government of India could draw appropriate inputs from Confronting the Internet's Dark Side in reformulating its encryption policy.

It would be really great if the author's prescriptions had the desired effects on educators, Net-users, law enforcement officers, and policy makers. Frankly speaking, to expect them to be enlightened enough to make unified efforts against the hate contagion seems to be too tall a proposition. In the world we live there are too many rulers -- policy makers and intellectual allies in the undeveloped or developing world, including the Middle East and South Asia  -- who fund/aid hate groups and terrorists, and there are rulers -- in the so-called advanced West-- who have been the former’s secret bed-partners ! 


Confronting the Internet's Dark Side: Moral and Social Responsibility on the Free Highway(NY and Washington DC.: Woodrow Wilson Center Press and Cambridge University Press, 2015).

ISBN 9781107105591 ;