BCS Internet Specialist Group member Keith Oborn reflects on computing, the internet, society and the environment.

The ‘computer industry’ is about 70 years old. The internet, as a commercial entity, is about 30. Growth in the last 30 years has been explosive and is now reaching the point where the combination is ubiquitous. It seems to me that there is a pressing need to take stock and consider the social and environmental issues that the industry raises.

Environmental issues are perhaps the simpler of the two.

It’s worth noting that the current ‘majors’ (Google, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft etc) are all making public efforts to convert their operational systems to renewable energy. Good, but this is the tip of the iceberg. To take one standout example of the problem, it has been estimated that in 2018 Bitcoin mining will use ‘more electricity than Argentina’. This may be wildly inaccurate but should give us all pause. So much use of resource and environmental degradation to invent virtual articles of imaginary value for the benefit of a tiny minority? Is this responsible behaviour?

I’m not denigrating the technology behind Bitcoin here: some of it (the blockchain) looks very promising, although perhaps not for financial transactions due to performance issues.

Our industry was estimated to consume 10 per cent of global electricity production five years ago - more energy than aviation. Is this a reasonable figure to trade against social and economic benefits?

On the social front, things are (naturally) much more complex.

I have spent the last few years delivering ‘parental control’ systems to major ISPs. The pressure to do this originated from, of all places, a Daily Mail campaign. This works but faces a huge wall of objections from those who maintain that the internet should be completely unrestricted for all. I was in that camp once, but the world moves on, and there is no other area of public service and behaviour that is unregulated - for good reason.

The current poster-children for the effects of free-for-all operation are Facebook, for the Cambridge Analytica problem, and Twitter for allowing - indeed feeding off - the promotion of anti-social behaviours by a huge range or users from the US President downwards (or is that ‘upwards’?).

But these two are the tip of a large iceberg, and the root (to mix metaphors) is the ‘free content if you let us sell your information’ business model that is so popular in Silicon Valley.

This model is seductive, and I believe grew out of the financial system that underpins most TV and other ‘traditional’ media. However, in traditional media the amount of ‘information’ that can be traded is negligible. Now it is enormous and has insidious effects on users.

What to do? The horse has most definitely bolted! I am wary of legislation, but there comes a point where governments must act. This has happened many times in the past (remember Ralph Nader?). It will be hard to unpick this knot and my space is very limited, but:

1: Require all entities offering ‘free’ services to heavily restrict the service and offer a ‘paid’ upgrade to an unrestricted service. Only those with the means of payment (i.e. adults) can get the full service, and because they are paying they and the provider have a clear contractual relationship, and the need to trade information will be reduced. Mobile apps are well down this road already.

2: Richard Stallman has recently made a proposal - see The Guardian website and other sites. I have often disagreed with Stallman in the past (not that he knows or cares!) but this is a good point: why do organisations need to collect so much data? Why does Oyster need to do anything except check that the card has enough credit to allow entry? Regulation should enforce ‘minimum necessary’ standards of data collection.

To the Randians of Silicon Valley this will sound very ‘Big Brother’. BUT: who would you rather have controlling your information and trading it? Anonymous foreign executives who are tasked with maximising profit, or the government you elect?

Finally, to misquote Bill Clinton:

‘It ain’t the economy, stupid’ - we must stop measuring the benefits of our industry in dollars alone. What ‘gross global happiness’ do we deliver? How can we ensure that we are helping the environment, not degrading it?

And Zhou Enlai:

‘It is too early to say’ - he was supposedly answering the question: ‘What is the outcome of the French Revolution?’. Let’s ask: ‘what is the benefit of Google/Facebook/Twitter/you choose?’. Same answer. Should we let them continue without check until we know the answer?