“President Donald Trump” isn’t something we expected to be writing this morning, what with the vast majority of the polls indicating a massive victory for his rival Hillary Clinton. However, this is the world we’ve woken up to, so on top of the mass hysteria surrounding The Donald’s upcoming new position as “leader of the free world,” the majority of discussion now surrounds exactly how he will make his mark on America.
One of Trump’s most powerful tools during his presidential campaign was undoubtedly his large presence on the internet. Boasting over 13.5 million followers over on his @realDonaldTrump Twitter account, Trump’s “tweet first ask questions later” approach to social networking divided opinion but undoubtedly garnered him a great deal of attention and press, overshadowing similar efforts from Clinton (though her “Delete your account” tweet amassed a whopping 530,000 retweets back in June). Then there was his significant alt-right following, dictated by hard-right online media outlets such as Breitbart and cultivated on message boards from Reddit to 4chan.
But despite the internet being a large part of why he was unexpectedly elected to the White House, Trump still has a very contentious relationship with the online world, which could ultimately prove to have major ramifications in regards to how we use the web. No matter what side of the fence you fall on when it comes to your opinion on the president-elect, his comments thus far have not inspired confidence that his run in office will have a positive impact on the way we use the internet. Here’s why:
“Closing up the internet”
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Back in December 2015, Donald Trump discussed how people are being recruited by “ISIS jihadists” over the internet, and how drastic measures should therefore be taken to ensure this would no longer be the case. Trump claimed that children are “watching the internet and they want to be masterminds,” adding: “We’re losing a lot of people because of the internet. We have to see Bill Gates and a lot of different people that really understand what’s happening. We have to talk to them about, maybe in certain areas, closing that internet up in some ways.”
Trump then prematurely predicted the backlash that “closing up the internet” would inspire, concluding: “Somebody will say, ‘Oh freedom of speech, freedom of speech.’ These are foolish people.”
— NotBuffytheVMPslayer (@NotBUFFY_VS) December 8, 2015
While Bill Gates obviously does not have the power to magically shut down parts of the internet, this seems indicative of Trump’s plans for combating terrorism by way of coming down hard on the freedom with which we’re able to use it. Though Trump did not go into specifics regarding which parts of the internet should be “closed up,” it’s certainly a worrying thought that more of our personal freedoms could be infringed upon in the name of combating ISIS – because everyone loves those rigourous TSA pat-downs, right?
“Opening up libel laws” for the press
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Donald Trump shares an incredibly tumultuous relationship with the press, and it’s not difficult to see why. The most controversial US presidential candidate in modern history, Trump received plenty of criticism from left, center and even right-wing publications who each rallied against him being elected the next president of the United States. As such, Trump revealed in February 2016 that he would be looking to change US libel laws in order to be able to more easily sue those who write “dishonest” things about him.
During a rally in Texas, Trump said: “One of the things I’m going to do if I win, and I hope we do and we’re certainly leading. I’m going to open up our libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money. We’re going to open up those libel laws. So when The New York Times writes a hit piece which is a total disgrace or when The Washington Post, which is there for other reasons, writes a hit piece, we can sue them and win money instead of having no chance of winning because they’re totally protected.”
Current laws protect media outlets printing stories about high-profile figures such as politicians by way of ensuring that they can only be sued if it is found their story was printed with malice. According to these laws, those suing the publications must provide proof that a story was printed about them with the knowledge that the claims contained within it were incorrect. Trump’s statement that he will make the current US libel laws less strict suggests that, if he gets his way, the press will have much less freedom to print their stories without being sued. This would effectively ensure that the narrative surrounding his presidential campaign could be more strictly controlled, and would pose a significant threat to American journalism across the board.
If journalists are stifled from being able to adequately and accurately report upon the news, this will inevitably mean that the population will continue to move away from relying upon news outlets to provide them with updates on US current affairs, and will lead to an even greater level of importance placed upon social networks such as Twitter in order to provide them with the stories that the press may be afraid to print. However, given the lack of fact-checking required for posting updates on social media, this could therefore lead to a great deal of misinformation being circulated online with established outlets being hesitant to corroborate anything that could potentially land them in financial jeopardy. While this is obviously a very hypothetical situation that would require a nigh-on dictatorial presidential run from Trump, if his comments are to be taken at face value then it could well be an unfortunate consequence of his disdain for the media.
Preventing “internet freedom” from being at risk
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We’ve already touched upon Trump’s lack of understanding when it comes to how the internet actually works (though it would be unfair to say that Trump is the only presidential candidate to have struggled in this regard, with everyone from Obama to Hillary Clinton having made clear their own difficulties in wrapping their head round the complexities of the ‘net), but this obliviousness is perhaps outlined best in his attempt to supposedly prevent governmental censorship of the internet outside of the US.
Trump’s involvement in this issue came this September, when it was revealed that Trump would be joining Ted Cruz in standing against the Department of Commerce’s decision to no longer supervise the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). In a statement released on Trump’s website, his national policy director Stephen Miller wrote: “U.S. oversight has kept the Internet free and open without government censorship—a fundamental American value rooted in our Constitution’s Free Speech clause. Internet freedom is now at risk with the President’s intent to cede control to international interests, including countries like China and Russia, which have a long track record of trying to impose online censorship.”
However, ICANN actually has no power whatsoever over individual speech online, as outlined by World Wide Web creator Tim Berners-Lee – an expert on the subject, if ever there was one. In a piece for The Washington Post, Berners-Lee wrote: “The global consensus at the heart of the Internet exists by virtue of trust built up over decades with people from all over the world collaborating on the technical design and operation of the network and the web. ICANN is a critical part of this global consensus. But if the United States were to reverse plans to allow the global Internet community to operate ICANN independently, as Sen. Cruz is now proposing, we risk undermining the global consensus that has enabled the Internet to function and flourish over the last 25 years.”
Berners-Lee also points out that despite Cruz’s claims to the contrary, ICANN does not have any say in the censorship of the internet in different countries, pointing to how countries such as China and Iran have their own firewalls that restricts internet access and control what kind of content can make its way to their population via the ‘net. “For the Internet to work, we need global consensus on technical standards and operating procedures such as those that are administered by ICANN,” he notes, adding: “Without this consensus, the networks operated by numerous companies in over a hundred countries around the world will cease to flow. The web sites designed by the leading Internet companies and hundreds of millions of individuals will cease to work. And the very domain names that we use to identify these web sites will fail.”