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Online anxieties

08 February 2019

THERE can be few linguistic devices as irritating as the retronym — the practice of naming an item in relation to a successor. Examples are “conventional oven”, “analogue watch”, “overground railway”, “whole milk”, even Star Wars: Episode IV. Worse is when a judgement is implied: “snail mail”, “dead-tree version”. The trend was started, however, by the Christians: “the Old Testament”, “BC”. To these examples must now be added “offline world”, i.e. the world. The term was used last weekend by the Bishop of Gloucester, and thus must now be considered mainstream. Barring the strange grasp on reality which the phrase implies, it would not be so bad if the online and offline worlds operated by the same rules, with the same checks and balances.

That they do not was evidenced by the holding of Safer Internet Day on Tuesday, when the Digital Minister, Margot Jones, stated: “We want to get to a place where we can enjoy the huge benefits of new technology has to offer, without our children, and other vulnerable individuals, being put at risk of serious harm.” It is widely recognised that online freedom must be curbed to protect young or vulnerable people from a range of harms, from peer bullying to exploitation by the social-media corporations themselves. The difficulty is in encouraging companies such as Facebook and Apple to make the necessary changes after years of foot-dragging. It is to be hoped that the forthcoming Online Harms White Paper will suggest sanctions against companies that fail to remove harmful material swiftly and permanently.

The problems with the online world are manifold, however, and cannot all be laid at the doors of the providers. Every innocent innovation can be put to ill-use, it seems, by those who adopt it. Instant information can save lives or encourage vulnerable people to take theirs. Social-media groups can foster community cohesion or be used for bullying and exclusion. Apps can teach new skills or empty bank accounts through gambling. Healthy sex advice exists out there, but woe betide anyone who attempts to hunt for it. Beyond this, the behaviour of ordinary users has to improve. The combination of speed, anonymity, and brevity in online contacts has stripped out much of the courtesy that has developed over centuries in the real world. Another serious lack online is context: businesses, charities, newspapers, and others use social media as an effective means of disseminating news. All are conscious that postings can be misunderstood or misinterpreted, sometimes willfully. This is irritating, but in the end, it is just work. For young people, however, who reveal their most intimate thoughts and actions online, this sort of criticism can be devastating. Yes, the technology giants must become more responsible for online content; but users, too, must take more thought about the online lives that they lead.

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