Father Piercarlo Maggiolini teaches Digital Ethics at Milan’s Polytechnics. With him, we reflected on the ideal limits of the web, based on the assumption that it is a do-it-yourself tool. The proposal of a sort of Constitution that may “serve to guarantee freedom within a regulatory framework. I don’t see why what we consider a normal framework for society shouldn’t be equally applied to the Internet.”
“I once said: if you want a free society all that you need is the Internet. I was wrong… The Arab Spring brought to the fore the great potential of the worldwide web, along with its most serious flaws… The tool that had served to depose dictators ultimately disappointed us.” December 2015, Geneva. Those were the words of world renowned Egyptian pundit, Wael Ghonim. In 2011, as chief marketing director of Google for Asia and the Middle East, Ghonim initiated the Egyptian revolution on his blog, to the extent that Time magazine hailed him as the most influential person of the year. Now that terrorism has raised serious questions on the negative potential of the Internet, Ghonim’s reflections are enlightening. The problem isn’t only the evil-intentioned use of the web, there is also a distorted element in the way in which the web is presently organized and conceived by the persons who hold the keys to worldwide internet. Before present epochal developments, the temptation to build walls under the illusion of curbing their growth is equally useless and dangerous. Thus the question isn’t to stop the Internet – as if it were possible – but to liberate it. Ghonim’s “conversion” was highlighted by Fr Piercarlo Maggiolini, who holds a Chair in Digital ethics at Milan’s Polytechnics, where he obtained a degree in engineering in the 1970s followed by a MA at Bocconi University. As university professor he has taught in Italian universities as well as in those in Cairo and San Paulo in Brazil. In 2008, at the age of sixty, he became presbyter in the diocese of Novara, where he coordinates, in particular, the pastoral ministry of University staff. He continues teaching at the Polytechnics, in what appears to be the only Chair in this field in an Italian university.
“The Internet cannot be a do-it-yourself”
Fr Maggiolini pointed out, not only because there are those that make a criminal use of it, but also because “we should always bear in mind that it’s a technological platform subjected to strong conditioning”. To this regard, personalization is a decisive theme. “If me and you google the same question, we won’t have the same answers because information will be selected by specific filters tailored to our profiles, created via our activity on the web”, explained Fr Maggiolini. It’s what another world guru, Eli Pariser, denounced as the “filter bubble.” In practical terms, research engines will suggest answers corresponding to our way of thinking, whereby instead of stimulating the broadening of our horizons, as it should, it will tend to reinforce our convictions. This mechanism, initiatilly conceived for commercial purposes, ultimately became a factor of cultural, and social polarization. When we read about young people who grow radicalized on the web to the point of turning into terrorists, we consider also this mechanism whose effects, moreover, are much more complex and pervasive.
Can one talk about Internet rules without being accused of violating freedom of expression? Fr Maggiolini advocates the proposal of a Constitution for the web, at least at European level.
In Italy the proposal was launched by Stefano Rodotà. “A Constitution serves to ensure freedom within a regulatory framework. I don’t see why what we consider a normal framework for the good of society shouldn’t be equally applied to the Internet”, remarked the Professor-priest. However, no regulatory framework will ever replace self-regulation, all the more so considering that “laws – however necessary – ultimately end up trailing behind the problems.” It is necessary to prevent. Fr Maggiolini made an example: “It is widely believed that the Internet should be used in early school years, but the debate fails to consider the establishment of limits. It’s like teaching someone to drive a car without explaining the traffic code.” Naturally the educational challenge of the web extends to include many more areas, and Fr Maggiolini has a dream:
“If there were a new Don Bosco he would address this issue.”
The ethical formation of those in charge of Internet planning is equally important, not to mention news outlets. Also in this case we are facing a perverse mechanism whereby journalists trail behind the web to avoid being overrun. But precisely for the above-mentioned reasons, seriously raising the question of unrestrained information available on the Internet is not a corporative form of defence. Are we really sure that uploading videos documenting human slaughters for the mere fact of having recorded those images on our smartphones – which in itself deserves in-depth reflection – doesn’t play into the hands of the terrorists, raising fear and indignation? And are we really sure that those news and media outlets that decide not to air these videos are failing their duty to inform? These questions should at least be raised. And perhaps we should respond with the same intellectual honesty of Ghonim.