Your driver license. A symbol of freedom. A quintessential moment in a teenager’s development and one of the few remaining rites of passage. The automobile is also one of the most deadly things mankind has ever invented. It’s no surprise that a test is required to operat a multi-ton projectile. The internet, it turns out, is surprisingly similar to the automobile, with one obvious exception: anyone can drive on the information highway.

 “I’m telling you this was the most perfect, dazzling creature I’ve ever seen!”

Society is struggling to understand how to manage communication and the distribution of ideas at a global scale. While Internet technologies can lead to tribal conflict, the freedoms enabled by the Internet need to be spread, not restricted. Yet the current national conversation is focused on harmful content and election interference. Before jumping into discussions about internet regulation and restrictions, it would be wise to pause and consider the impacts and outcomes.

What’s the individual effect of getting sucked into a YouTube algorithm-hole of fringe content? People tend to be terrible at following the chain of causality back to its true source. Correlation does not imply causation, and that includes equating the number of views a fringe video gets and its impacts on the real world. You don’t blame the phone an unlicensed driver was using prior to crashing into oncoming traffic; you blame the driver. The solution? Teach people how to drive, ideally before an accident ever occurs (bans on phone use by teenage drivers have not been shown to reduce their phone use!).

Most who stumble upon ISIS propaganda, anti-vax ramblings or flat earth conspiracies are not affected by them. The minority of people who ultimately join these counter-tribes were sent down an antisocial path long before. For example, terrorism expert Peter Neumann explains in the book The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State, “I don’t believe we’ve seen a single case of a fighter who traveled to Syria without knowing someone [in real life] who went there first,” and “The function of social-media propaganda is to provide a growth medium for the germ [of jihadist ideology] once it has been contracted.”

Even if a YouTube video was the final contributor, in its absence, something else would have caused the reaction. Removing the final link in the chain does not eliminate the problem. Instead, a solution needs to be implemented decades prior to the last-straw video, tweet or Facebook post. An easy and obvious solution is education — one not much different than drivers ed.

The driver license rite of passage may not be around forever as autonomous cars begin to take over. Instead, a new rite should emerge: the rite of Internet passage. Imagine this: At the age of 13, kids take a class that unlocks their digital identity and  grants them full use of the Internet. Prior to being unleashed into the world of near-infinite information, they learn about phishing, propaganda and harmful content. Then, and only then, can they post their first selfie. Sure, kids will laugh at the course on cyberbullying, just as they do in sex ed. But for those who believe YouTube is manipulating adult minds, certainly they can accept that an educator will have a similar effect on a child’s.

This system won’t be perfect. Just as many kids drive cars before they are licensed, and others text and drive dangerously once they do, people having a basic understanding of what they are doing online will be a net positive. Further, while the rules of the road have been agreed upon, and everyone agrees on what a red light means, society has not agreed on the rules of the Internet. To create an effective curriculum more conversation is needed. But in the end, think of how many deaths drivers ed prevents.

There will always be bad actors. It’s a sad reality of human nature that some people with a bad combination of nature and nurture go on to hurt others whether it be with cars, weapons or the Internet. These outliers have always vexxed society. The focus, however, should be on how to do the greatest good for the greatest number of people.

There are three types of digital content that people fear most:

1. Predatory Content targeting children. Content that targets kids is largely a problem for parents who’ve decided that YouTube is a suitable babysitter. I wouldn’t let kids under 13 access YouTube, full stop. Leaving kids unattended in parks is a bad idea too, but there aren’t any demands to ban parks. The same common sense education that teaches parents to tell their kids not to get into the creepy van with the guy offering candy should also be used to not leave children unattended online.

2. Propaganda, including election interference. Internet content is used (on all sides) as weapons of war and pre-war. This is nothing new. From paintings, to the printing press, radio and TV, communication has always been weaponized by States as a means to achieving their goals. Remember, the United States is a worldwide (and local) leader in its use of propaganda. Internet propaganda is only unique in its reach and non-state usage. Just as self-driving cars may soon eliminate a problem currently solved through drivers education, AI and yet-to-be-discovered technologies may solve the propaganda problem one day too. But educating people in the techniques of propaganda is a no-lose first step and the only real option we have. Manual human moderation is already being shown to be harmful, and with 300 hours of content uploaded to YouTube every hour, moderation is a Scythian task.

3. Active disinformation, such as anti-vax and flat earth, and hate content. Active disinformation is an externality of how networks are agnostic to the value of information. All 1’s and 0’s flow freely. This is why YouTube, Facebook, and other social networks are having such a hard time policing content. They are fighting against the very foundation of their platforms. Further, active moderation will always be a slippery slope. Corporations only have a responsibility to intervene when it impacts profitability (i.e. advertisers leaving the platform). Instead of mass-censorship, let’s introduce mass-education. Governments already have rules around hate speech and those should be applied equally on as offline.

To be clear, the goal is not to implement internet identity and authentication. The White House piloted a program in 2011 called The National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace, which the media described as a driver license for the Internet. That morphed into the Trusted Identities Group, which hasn’t had much to say since 2017. There is a conversation to be had around online identity management, but the aim is to teach people how to use a technology that is as powerful for ideas as cars are for movement. The above government proposals currently plan to hand you the keys just for filling out a form.

Except for a minority of adults who take the time to truly understand the power of global communications, kids and parents alike have no clue what they are doing online. That’s why predatory content, propaganda, and disinformation have an effect, and why people are so scared of them. Education would go a long way to address these communication problems at the root level and empower the individual without ceding power to states and corporations. Instead of regulation, censorship and employing hundreds of thousands of people in a futile effort to protect us from ourselves, why not start with the people themselves? The Internet was one of the greatest inventions of mankind before we turned it on ourselves. Perhaps we can bring it back through the same power that brought it about in the first place: knowledge.

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