In an unusually concerted effort by the media, the Internet came under scrutiny this week from a variety of UK sources. First the Daily Mail highlighted in a prominent article titled ‘Dr Google’ that too many women diagnose themselves on the Internet, often wrongly. One has to consider why women alone were the focus of the research, since it is obvious to anyone that anyone, regardless of their gender, would be looking for health information on the web. This odd piece of research was followed by an attack by a group of MPs on free internet access in order to protect children from pornography, also widely reported by the same paper and others. The MPs call for an automatic ban (censorship essentially) in order to protect vulnerable minds. Lastly, The Guardian in a much more enlightened article commented on a recent study by Jonathan Zittrain on how the commodification of the Internet may lead to its demise as a platform for freedom of expression. In essence, Zittrain says that by creating ‘walled gardens’ such as Facebook, Google+ etc, where information is no longer allowed to flow freely across the whole platform, we are effectively censoring content. My summary is obviously an oversimplification of the study, since it also considered the role of devices and the different experience of accessing the Internet from a PC and a smartphone. Read it as it’s a worthwhile piece of journalism/research.
Two very strong and rather unsettling themes are at play here. The first is based on the world of business, represented by the likes of Apple, Microsoft and Google and for whom the Web is just a an amazingly profitable source of income. In order to generate income Internet access has to be related to advertising and this has also naturally led to issues of protecting other corporate interest through copywriting, for example, thus leading to further restrictions on unfettered access.
The second theme is the political aspect of it all. As usual, politicians were the last to embrace the world wide web. Initially they paid little notice to it, allowing it to grow freely with few controls. However they soon cottoned on to the advantages of having their own strong web presence, as well as becoming more sensitive to the pressure of strong lobbying groups, either commercial (see above) or ethical/religious ones. So in recent years many politicians have jumped on the Internet bandwagon and have flogged it to pursue their own agenda. For the most part, with the exclusion of the most enlightened ones, politicians fear the Internet, just as they fear anything that gives the general public unfettered access to information. Like it or not politicians are in the business of control. We elect them to run things on our behalf and they take this aspect of their job very seriously, even in an age when allowing people to express their opinion online would offer a greater democratic representation of popular intentions. Controlling the flow of information is therefore very appealing to most politicians and all too often these checks are based on the lowest possible common denominator, a principle which is also applied in policies at various other levels (see for example education or health).
The powerful combination of these interests, coupled with the popularity of gadgets such as those mentioned in the study by Zittrain should be a cause of real concern for us all. Having been a pioneer of the web I recall fondly the anarchical way in which the web was used in the early ‘90s. It was for the most part then used by academia, but there was a real sense that ideas could freely circulate across the world, unfettered. Of course, freedom is a precious and fragile gift, like the thinnest glass, and can soon be shattered by more sinister interests (see the entrance of less savoury individuals in bulletin boards and similar), hence the inevitable accretion of rules and regulations.
Going back to Zittrain, I don’t think we can expect a resurrection of a totally unfettered net. After all, total freedom of expression is much more than just a technological quest, but is in essence a philosophical choice. We could only achieve freedom of expression if we respected totally and absolutely our right to be who we are as individuals (provided of course this wouldn’t harm anyone else), but we are still quite far from this goal, even in the West.
- Google’s Sergey Brin says coverage of his views on Internet freedom was “distorted” (thenextweb.com)
- Sergey Brin Clarifies Comments from Guardian Article (webpronews.com)
- Web freedom faces greatest threat ever, warns Google’s Sergey Brin | Via The Guardian (mediafuturist.com)