Some nights nowadays I wake with a nightmare, which is unusual for me. I have long been a person who goes to bed around 9 pm and springs up at 5 am to spend the next two hours peacefully dipping into my home collection of 2,000-odd books while petting my dog and cat, who wake up early when they see my light on. I can’t ever remember getting the kind of nightmares I’ve been getting quite frequently lately.

These nightmares have something to do with the internet. As you know, dear reader, the internet is something I have been devoted to ever since I created, coded, and put up the first website in the Indian sub-continent in 1995.

What’s driving these new nightmares? To start with I shudder each time I hear reports that the user-profile data gathered when internet users visit sites is being sold to political operators, who then use this to influence elections in the United States, the United Kingdom, Kenya, Mexico, and, hold your breath, even India (Wikipedia has an elaborate account of this).

Then there are these almost daily reports of fake news. The most recent one which, I must confess even I almost fell for, was the news item that Kamala Harris, vice-president of the United States, started her first day in office with Vedic mantras and pujas! This was forwarded to me by some of the most eminent people in India as evidence that Indian values are finally taking over the world.

Then there are the bans that some countries are imposing on other countries’ web apps — an example is our own government’s ban of 59 Chinese apps including TikTok, WeChat, and Baidu.

The internet was supposed to be, at least for early true believers like me, a place and technology that would allow all citizens to express their views and wisdom and share it with others without anyone blocking them.

I clearly remember those months in 2008, when I used to take day-flights twice a week to the Ministry of IT in New Delhi and work hard with other members of the Committee that updated the Indian IT Act, 2008, to make the internet possible in India (I personally wrote Section 79, which created the class “Intermediaries” to protect internet platforms). All of us working so hard on this, including the IT secretary of that time, Mr Nambiar, looked forward to how the internet would make India an egalitarian and prosperous country.

How then has the internet de-generated to a point that it appears now like a jungle with predators and hunters out to exploit every single human being?

I find it reassuring that such feelings of disappointment about what the internet and the world wide web have turned out to be is also shared by the British inventor of the world wide web, Tim Berners Lee, who recently said: “I had this sort of utopian dream that good knowledge would become ubiquitous … I think a lot of people were shocked to find out the state of misinformation out there …”

Illustration: Ajay Mohanty
There are other instances in history when an excellent and promising technology gets bent to nefarious ends. The first Industrial Revolution started with a goal of using machines to do the boring, repetitive tasks involved in the spinning of cotton yarn and the weaving of cotton cloth and thus also make cloth affordable for not just the wealthy but for also the common people. But before long its very success started the evil. With booming demand for cloth, Africans were inhumanly enslaved and sent to America to work in cotton fields because the demand for cotton had skyrocketed. This booming demand also led to expeditions to discover the original source of cotton, which led the British to India and embark on their colonialisation project for the next 200 years.

What are the lessons from this? Technical innovation and entrepreneurial energy, when allowed to flourish unbridled, can create disastrous consequences.

I suspect the internet is at that critical juncture in 2021 that the First Industrial Revolution was in the mid-19th century.

This is alarming because the Covid adventure has speeded up the process of internet adoption. For example, online education, hitherto seen as a pastime for tech enthusiasts, is now emerging as the core basis for not just higher education but even school education. Online judicial hearing, again seen as an indulgence, is now gaining widespread use and looks as if the days of travelling many hours and waiting even more hours for hearing in courts and then waiting many months for the final decisions are about to end. Primary medical care, particularly diagnosis, also appears to be ready for adopting online methods.

In other words, the internet is about to change its role in our society from being a fun thing that upscale youngsters did to look for jobs, discover cheap tickets and discounted fashion-ware, exchange gossip, flirt with far-flung partners, listen to music, or watch movies to something more central to the lives of people from all walks of life and also a critical part of our defence and law-and-order infrastructure?

Is it that a herculean effort is needed in policy initiatives: Update our competition law (to deal with excessively subsidised online sales), our privacy law to bring it in line with Europe’s pioneering effort? Do we need new legislation to create genuinely Indian venture capital and a private equity sector and consequently an Indian-owned Internet industry in India that can support both our defence needs as well as our economic growth needs?

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