Balancing digital regulation
and access to information

Journal.
Balancing digital regulation and access to information

The coronavirus pandemic is posing new questions about digital regulation and freedom of information faster than we can answer them.

No-one ever caught coronavirus through social media, and the free availability of accurate information about the virus is a crucial part of the fight against it. Faster reporting on the true extent of the virus within China from the outset would probably have contributed to contain its international spread.

The Indian government, for example, has asked social media platforms to remove “misinformation” on the virus from their platforms. If this might not be a central priority, it comes as a part of a responsibility to guard against collective psychosis while fighting the pandemic. There is an element here of fiddling while Rome burns: players that have failed to act quickly enough to protect the populations now have to do something, and press a button that we can control. So the problem changes from saving lives into avoiding panic that can happen notably by the spread of “fake news”.

If panic is what it takes to make people stay at home, then a sharp dose might be no bad thing. But social media carries its own dangers in a pandemic. People can seek to profiteer by hoarding and selling masks or other essential items online. And those who delight in spreading computer viruses are given an opening.

In France, people officially need to fill out an online form every time they go out. The French police show no great inclination to check these forms, which can also be replaced by a handwritten letter. But the computer virus mongers have their chance: some French companies have warned employees that fake versions of the online form, with embedded computer viruses, are circulating online.

Blockchain

There are broad and narrow definitions of “fake news”. The term is broadly used to describe anything in the press that doesn’t reflect reality. In its narrow sense, “fake news” is something that purports to come from a trusted source, but in fact does not. It should not be possible to pretend to be the French government online without being immediately detected. A process of regulation and certification of official information is a step that could help solve such problems.

Public blockchain offers the tools to do this. This can be defined as an open, transparent ledger that keeps permanent, timed records. The experts tell us that blockchain systems are impossible to break into or falsify. Incoming governments or corporate leaders have no way to clean them out and so rewrite history: blockchain records are effectively carved in stone for ever.

Increased use of public blockchain can help to heal the fractures in trust that in many countries have opened up between governments and civil society. A beneficial side-effect of our pandemic would be greater use of them by governments to disseminate public information for a better access to official and trusted information.