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More Helped than Harmed: The Internet and Human Flourishing in the Coming Decade

Today, someone asked me about the Internet and human well-being over the next decade. The question was a healthy provocation to look at the big picture. I chose “more helped than harmed” from the very short list of radio-button responses. Here’s my elaboration:

There are so many angles on this issue that it is hard to select one response. I assume we will see declines in well-being in terms of people's real and perceived privacy, for example. And we are certain to see speech-related harms. On the one hand, online content ginning up racism, extreme populism, or bias will likely expand. On the other, ill-conceived attempts to control this "bad speech" will lead to the suppression of lawful and valuable "good speech." Laws and public policy in the EU already incentivize platforms to remove legal information and expression posted by ordinary Internet users. I predict that trend will expand to other democracies around the world.

I think/hope that these harms will be outweighed by improvements in well-being in other parts of the world. Many people in developing countries or oppressive regimes are only beginning to experience the Internet's very real and very positive transformative power. Internet access can improve material prosperity, education, access to support for LGBT and other minority groups, government accountability, and much more.

It's currently fashionable in the US and Europe to see the Internet as a force for harm. That's not wrong. But we should not let that blind us to the incredible benefits the Internet has brought us in the past twenty years, and the benefits still to come -- not just for us but for people around the world. Nor should we let our current pessimism lead to new laws and technologies that will serve as tools of censorship and surveillance in the hands of human-rights-abusing governments - wherever those governments may be or come to be.

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