As people live more and more of their daily lives online, what are the implications of this new form of cyber-society, and by what rules might it be governed?
This was the question addressed by legal, media, and internet experts at a roundtable workshop convened by the Foundation for Law, Justice and Society at Wolfson College last week.
The discussion was framed by Professor Denis Galligan, Professor of Socio-Legal Studies, Oxford, and Monika Magyar, who set out the questions to be addressed in assessing exactly how these transnational and largely unregulated online spaces might affect concepts of personal identity, freedom of expression, privacy, and the jurisdiction of states.
Bernie Hogan, Research Fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute opened the discussion by assessing the contested ‘ownership’ of online social interactions. He argued that Facebook’s recent decision to withhold data about the relations between its users from social researchers on the grounds that it alone ‘owns’ such online relationships is a regressive response to concerns over privacy of data.
Ying Yu, Research Fellow at Wolfson College and Programme Coordinator of the FLJS Consumer Rights in China Programme, examined the nature of trust in online relationships through her research into the online trading platform Alibaba and the exponential success it has achieved by guaranteeing previously insecure relationships between online consumers and vendors.
Nicole Stremlau, Head of the Programme in Comparative Media Law and Policy (PCMLP) at the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies, Oxford, discussed the impacts of Facebook and other social media giants’ response to the objective in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to connect the entire world’s population online.
She described a new five-year research project to be launched by PCMLP that will investigate the effects of such efforts in post-conflict societies, where the state is weak and rebel groups, including the likes of ISIS, hold vested interests in exploiting these new social connections for their own ends.
Damian Tambini, Senior Lecturer at the Department of Media and Communications, LSE, also announced a new stream of research that will assess the influence of social media giants such as Facebook and Google on the political process and the flow of information to citizens through social ‘newsfeeds’.
He argued that Facebook initiatives such as the recent ‘Have you voted?’ button could have a bearing on, or be manipulated to unfairly influence voter turnout, and that algorithmic selection of ‘relevant’ or targeted content in users newsfeeds can distort the unfiltered access to information provided by traditional news agencies.
Jacob Rowbottom, Associate Professor of Law at Oxford, examined a number of concerning trends emerging as a result of the social dependence on online platforms that could actually inhibit free speech online.
He argued that the technology has developed at such a pace that existing laws relating to defamation and free speech are in danger of becoming out of date in an age in which anyone can instantly publish their own content. He also critiqued the disproportionate and harmful levels of social censure and public condemnation that often accompany relatively minor examples of ‘offensive’ speech acts committed in haste online.
Iginio Gagliardone, Research Fellow at the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies, Oxford, brought the proceedings to a close with his analysis of the developing impact of cyberspace throughout the past few decades, and identified the role of the state in relation to the increasingly powerful online media giants as one of the key questions of the decade to come.