Reading Tocqueville and envisioning a better Web after COVID-19

In recent weeks, the spread of Covid-19 has led to the largest restrictions to physical liberties in a generation. In Hungary, the government passed a law that allows Viktor Orban to pass reforms on any topic without consulting Parliament. In the UK, gatherings of more than two people have been made illegal. In Finland, 1.7M Finns are not allowed to leave the capital city. The untold story is how those restrictions are playing out online and what this could mean for the Web as we know it.

The end of libertarianism

The web we know and use today was founded in the late 1990s in a time of peace, a period Francis Fukuyama referred to as “the end of History”. The prevailing ethos in Silicon Valley at the time was libertarianism which emphasized freedom of choice and individual judgement and was characterized by a skepticism of authority and state power. Such values were a major contributor to globalisation, self expression and economic expansion.

Fast forward to 2020 and the war against Covid-19 is producing a dissonance between the founding principles of the Internet and the steps required to keep people safe. Social media platforms which were previously hesitant to become the arbiters of truth are forced to strengthen their stance against health-related misinformation. Their use of artificial intelligence instead of humans for content moderation can result in over enforcement and likely takedowns of harmless speech. In Taiwan, local authorities are using apps to track cases of coronavirus and enforce quarantines. In Singapore, the government developed an app which revealed the address of people who tested positive for coronavirus, an obvious encroachment on privacy in the name of public health.

We can wonder what the Web will look like once the “war” against the pandemic is over and what will be left of its founding libertarian values. Some argue the world will reverse or lift the temporary restrictions to online liberties introduced during COVID-19. Others argue autocratic governments around the world will seize the opportunity to normalize direct regulation and oversight of the Web.

Being an optimist, I believe we need to call for a new definition of online liberty, one the world has already previewed in the struggle between big tech platforms and regulators and which the pandemic can reveal. That definition goes all the way back to the founding of America.

Calling for a renaissance of civil and moral liberty

This period of forced and voluntary restrictions under COVID-19 could usher in a new era of online liberty in America, once that looks a little less like the libertarian bias towards free speech and could be a return to the liberty Tocqueville described in Democracy in America.

In chapter 1 of the book, Tocqueville quotes John Winthrop, one of the founders of Massachusetts: “There is a liberty of corrupt nature which is affected both by men and beasts, to do what they list, and this liberty is inconsistent with authority, impatient of all restraint […], tis the grand enemy of truth and peace and all the ordinances of God and bent against it. But there is a civil, a moral, a federal liberty which is the proper end and object of authority; it is liberty only which is just and good.”

Instead of returning to values which Tocqueville says are ‘inconsistent with authority’, ‘impatient of all restraint’ and ‘the grand enemy of truth and peace’, the Web after COVID-19 could become more civil, more humble and more equal.

  • More civil: with COVID-19, we are already previewing a rebirth of nuance and civility on social media as a large number of users who had left return to these platforms to seek information and connection. Non controversial topics such as food, gaming or entertainment rise as political topics start to be less center stage. This in turn results in people finding common ground and finding community where they previously felt excluded
  • More humble: with COVID-19 we are previewing what online liberty could look like if it were not so competitive. As people work from home, opportunities for bragging and showing off decrease and kindness takes over
  • More equal: isolation also previews the kind of equality in social condition Tocqueville noticed when travelling across America. Vast swaths of the socio-economic spectrum are united by their shared experiences, when status and wealth previously divided them. Remote work is true of only part of the population, but the feeling of isolation is shared.

The new online trends started by COVID-19 are only a preview of what the Web could look like once we come out of the pandemic. Liberty online after this could be less like the unbound liberty the founders of the Web designed and more like the type of civil liberty the founders of America envisioned.

We have seen how the Web could change for the better for individuals. Now let’s explore how it could change for governments and the news industry.

A new distribution of power

Tocqueville famously warned against the ‘tyranny of the majority’ in America, arguing that even democracy must have its limits. According to America’s public philosopher, “unlimited power in human affairs is always a bad and dangerous thing; only God can be omnipotent”.

Tocqueville certainly did not predict the emergence of social media, however he might have compared its success to a type of tyranny of the majority against the minority, of individuals against figures of authority.

Assuming with a healthy dose of optimism that the definition of online liberties shifts from libertarianism to civil and moral liberty under Covid-19; we may wonder if a redistribution of power is to be expected. Will we notice a shift of influence and trust from individuals towards their institutions? Will institutions regain the equity they lost partly due to the rise of social media?

We’re already seeing an empowerment of the first, second and fourth estate under Covid-19. Governments like the French government which only a month ago were criticized for abusing their executive powers are now entrusted with the strongest limitations to individual liberties in a generation. The news industry which only a month ago was even less trusted than NGOs or the Government according to Edelman’s Trust barometer are now witnessing rises in traffic as people turn to authoritative news sources for information. Even Churches are adapting to the new normal and reaching new audiences.

I believe a redistribution of power towards institutions is ultimately a net positive repercussion of the pandemic. By keeping us socially isolated, COVID-19 is ushering a more civil and moral form of online liberty, one that thrives in balance and the separation of power between people and their institutions. There is something to that equilibrium we should strive to preserve beyond the pandemic.

Exploring the intersection of technology and democracy.

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