The internet is going to explode, probably.
This is what several big news stories of 2018 seem to point to. You may have seen headlines to do with Facebook and a previously largely unheard-of company called Cambridge Analytica, possibly accompanied by a picture of a circa 2007 British alt-rock band-looking lad discussing his role in harvesting data from 50 million Facebook profiles without the users' permission in order to influence the outcome of Brexit and the 2016 US presidential election.
Or something like that. IDK. Very few people understand what’s going on because most of us have pretty full days as it is – going to work, masturbating, practising self care, etc. We just scan the news to create a mental diagram of disconnected buzzwords and repress a vague sense of dread that the internet will split like a bag of crisps ripped too forcefully, chucking all our old Myspace bulletins and porn preferences out into the universe for everyone to see.
Until recently, most of us have been allowed to live in blissful ignorance, using the internet for everything from banking to chirpsing, and in doing so uploading every possible detail about ourselves. Now: the reckoning. Everyone has lost it – downloading encryption apps, asking their mates about VPNs at the pub and panic-erasing their Facebook accounts.
Anyway, turns out it's basically impossible to erase your digital footprint if you have a Gmail account for work, or if you pay for anything on card ever. So, let's learn to live with it by taking a look at how all this mad internet news actually affects you.
What is it? Location from which: i) hackers accessed the Democratic National Committee network and leaked thousands of emails; ii) trolls set up a load of fake Facebook accounts to buy ads and disseminate posts to fuel societal division and fuck with the US presidential election.
Wait, when did this happen? Back in September of 2015, the FBI contacted the DNC to warn them that one of their computers had been compromised by a cyber espionage team linked to the Russian government. The calls were taken by someone at the help desk who had no real way of differentiating real calls from prank ones, so didn’t look into stuff too thoroughly. Hackers were able to roam freely through the network for half a year, blah, blah, blah, 2016 rolls around and thousands of emails were leaked, and now everyone knows the DNC wanted to undermine Bernie Sanders' campaign.
What does it mean for me? Well, Donald Trump is the president now. So, unless you’re involved in big business or Evangelicalism, the best you can hope for is three more years of backward momentum culminating in nuclear war, because formal governing bodies are run like Applecare.
What is it? A London-based data analysis company operating under some other massive company called SCL, sort of like a San Pellegrino / Nestlé situation, I guess? It's part-owned by hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer, who also co-owns Breitbart. According to its website, Cambridge Analytica provides "data-driven insights" that "give you the tools needed to cut through a crowded advertising landscape and speak directly to individual customers". According to 28-year-old whistleblower Christopher Wylie, who helped found Cambridge Analytica and worked there until end of 2014, its function is more accurately described as "Steve Bannon's psychological warfare mind-fuck tool".
Wait, when did this happen? Wylie claims data was pulled from Facebook between June and August of 2014, during which time enough information was gathered to create psychographic profiles of 30 million potential voters in the US. The Guardian also reports that Vote Leave in the UK allocated 40 percent of its £6.8 million campaign spending to AIQ – a data analytics firm linked to Cambridge Analytica (until last year it was listed on its website as "SCL Canada"). So: ages ago, but we’re only now finding out because we aren’t important. We’re just fleshy lumps of hate predisposed to react one way or another to fake news depending how you fared on The Hogwarts Sorting Quiz.
What does it mean for me? There are two approaches you can take here:
i) The White Lie, in which it feels a bit like being mugged and then realising who dunnit four years later, by which point you’re like, 'Well, I’ve bought a new wallet now and I don’t remember how much cash I had on me exactly, and to be honest I’ve got other problems going on – for instance, I forgot to cancel my Amazon Prime trial and now I’ve been paying for it for ages, which sucks.' Or:
ii) The Truther, in which you actually think about a third-party data collection company illegally ciphering information about you and using personality traits you’ve expressed online to create a full psychological profile with a view to predicating your political behaviour, before slipping slowly into madness.
SESTA (ALLOW STATES AND VICTIMS TO FIGHT ONLINE SEX TRAFFICKING ACT) / FOSTA (STOP ENABLING SEX TRAFFICKERS ACT)
What is it? There is a very comprehensive piece about it on Slate, here, but to summarise:
The aim: Combat sex trafficking online by giving victims and prosecutors more power to sue websites, like Backpage, which "knowingly assist, facilitate, or support sex trafficking".
The result: Pass sloppily crafted hybrid of two bills that conflate sex trafficking survivors with consensual sex workers, using legislative language so broad it will push all talk about sex trafficking and sex work off the internet completely, even if it's safety information. This will force sex trafficking deeper underground and sex work onto the streets, neither of which are safer. Further criminalisation, loss of resources and more encounters with the police will benefit the personal safety and economic wellbeing of sex workers, right?
PS: to achieve this, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act will be amended so that websites can be held liable for their users' speech, which definitely won’t have any damning ramifications for the way ALL social media works.
Wait, when did this happen? FOSTA and SESTA both passed in the senate with overwhelming majorities, on the 27th of February and 21st of March, respectively. Facebook backed this, by the way :-)
What does it mean for me? Although it’s American legislation, the global nature of the internet means it could affect anyone involved in sex work. Any websites that share safety information, harm reduction techniques and "bad date" lists are just as likely to be charged on the same terms as sex traffickers. Also, SESTA/FOSTA is retroactive, so you could be banned from a platform for openly discussing sex work years prior. Beyond that, tech companies are likely to start shitting themselves, as we'll see exemplified by this next bit.
MICROSOFT CRACKDOWN ON "OFFENSIVE LANGUAGE"
What is it? Changes to Microsoft’s Services Agreement which clarify that the company is able to serve penalties, suspensions and bans against people who use "offensive language" across Xbox Live, Skype and other services. Some people think it relates to SESTA-FOSTA, since platforms will now have to consider their own liability for users' speech, illegally-shared content and anything that might be construed as trafficking.
Wait, when did this happen? The new changes will come into effect on the 1st of May.
What does it mean for me? Want to use Skype to have cyber sex with a long-distance partner, or just, like, with anyone for fun? Want to send or receive nudes via Outlook? Prone to swearing profusely while playing Fortnite?
In theory, all those things are off the cards under this new policy. That said, Microsoft haven’t made any effort to clarify what constitutes "offensive language", and also noted that it "cannot monitor the entire Services". The code of conduct states: "Don’t publicly display or use the Services to share inappropriate content or material (involving, for example, nudity, bestiality, pornography, offensive language, graphic violence or criminal activity)." Which sounds a lot like basic arse-covering, tbh. Punishments include Microsoft refusing to publish content for "any reason", removing games from your console and seizing money in your Microsoft account. It’s all a bit pissed-off-dad saying you can’t borrow the car anymore because you "treat it like a tip", but you both know it’s not a real threat, because if you can’t drive he has to either taxi you around or deal with you being in the house all the time. Still, as a precedent: not amazing.
GDPR (GENERAL DATA PROTECTION REGULATION)
What is it? A rule passed by the European Union in 2016, setting new regulations for how companies manage and share personal data. In theory, the GDPR only applies to EU citizens' data, but, again, the internet is *extremely Michelle Branch voice* everywhere.
Wait, when did this happen? May-ish.
What does it mean for me? Apparently companies will be asking permission to collect your data more often, but there will also be more opportunity to download all the data a company has on you, and more rules regarding how companies share data after it's been collected. It's too early to know what any of that is going to look like, or what will happen in the UK after Brexit, but the boring reality will probably involve clicking one billion "click to proceed" boxes on Terms of Agreements you never read in the first place.
What is it? Last year the British government passed a law called the Digital Economy Act, which requires porn sites to use age checks. This is apparently to prevent "children" "stumbling upon" "explicit content". The intention is to crack down on access to "extreme porn" – a problematic term in itself, since it’s been used to cover everything from female ejaculation to bestiality – but who cares about nuance when you could just ban everything for under-18s and run the rest through The British Board of Film and Classifications (?!?!????)
Wait, when did this happen? Age checks were supposed to come into effect next month, but – because it's a stupid idea riddled with serious privacy concerns, as well as having zero long-term benefits, since rooting things in legislation rather than education is futile – won’t be implemented until "later this year".
The delay is coming mainly from concerns around privacy and guidelines. The BBFC were only announced as the official regulator in February, and so far there’s no requirement for privacy to be higher than the General Data Protection Regulation. The other problem is that the vast majority of commercial porn sites – Pornhub, YouPorn, RedTube, Tube8, Spankwire, Brazzers, Reality Kings, Mofos and Bromo – are owned by one publisher, Mindgeek. With verification going through a single publisher, critics claim Mindgeek would effectively become the "Facebook of porn" – i.e. able to establish a monopoly, collect vast amounts of data on users' porn habits and leave their privacy vulnerable to hacks or leaks. #tbt Ashley Madison.
What does it mean for me? Things could suck for independent porn publishers, who might experience a drop in traffic, and therefore income, because viewers might be skeptical about handing their details over to smaller or more niche sites. Generally, though, it’s probably not going to involve the previously-assumed act of shuffling down to the Post Office, passport in hand, in order to prove your age so you can have a stress wank after work. You can just download a VPN service and evade the whole issue. As Wired noted, any attempt to restrict VPN providers would be too great an erosion of privacy rights and internet freedoms. So it’s basically just an additional barrier for the less technically enabled.
FULL CYBER WARFARE
What is it? Total war, online.
Wait when did this happen? Soon.
What does it mean for me? Death.