The Fragile Net

October 1, 2013

One of the centrepieces of the University of St Andrew’s 600th anniversary celebrations was the Graduation Ceremony.  Hundreds attended the ceremony itself and many more streamed the ceremony live.  The star of the show, in many ways, was Hillary Clinton, ex-Secretary of State and potentially the future President of the United States.  She wasn’t the only famous brain on stage, however, as the University honoured such illustrious minds as Jane Goodall and Tim Berners-Lee, among others, who were also on hand at the ceremony.  Tim Berners-Lee is one of the great minds credited with helping to invent the internet as we know it.  He is also the founder of the World Wide Web Foundation, an organization which seeks to keep the Web ‘available, usable, and valuable for everyone’.  The Web Foundation’s page accurately describes the limited availability of the web, and seeks to furthermore establish the Web as a ‘global public good and a basic right’.  Many people would consider the internet to be a superfluous innovation which, while it has made countless lives easier and access to information hugely more convenient, is not so fundamental that it should be considered a ‘right’.  What the internet represents is access to information, and through that the ability to make independently informed decisions about political, social, and cultural issues.

 

Access to independent information is what allows us to be responsible and fully involved domestic and global citizens.  Without it, we are forced to be dependent on the ‘official’ sources which are charged with keeping the public opinion swaying in a certain direction.  The internet, however, has made it difficult for governments to be able to fully control the flow of information; yet, many still try to do so with varying degrees of success.  China is a central example of this phenomenon.  The Chinese government manages to restrict the flow of information to its constituents quite well through what is widely known as ‘the great Chinese firewall’, which filters out information which the Beijing government determines to be too controversial for the general public.  This filtration system is much more sophisticated than a standard block-all method of censorship however, and allows bits of potentially inflammatory information through to the general public, following a ‘first censor, then publish’ course of action as reported by Perry Link in this July NY Times blogpost.  This means publishing information in the back pages and ‘under small headlines’ to mitigate exposure rather than just denying it.

 

It appears that China may be taking new, harsher steps towards complete censorship of the internet.  According to an article in The Daily Dot, there are new rules in place which make it illegal to publish and spread anything considered an ‘online rumor’, a purposefully vague term which is open to wide interpretation by the authorities.  This makes it much riskier for social media users in China to share and re-post stories which they may find interesting, but which the government finds potentially threatening.  Such a stranglehold on available information takes away the possibility for Chinese internet users to vet and judge information for themselves.  While the new law does protect responsible companies from malicious, viral lies that may hurt business, the wide scope of the law makes it difficult for bloggers to share any stories that might be at all critical of large firms or government agencies.

 

Governments are not the only entities interested in restricting internet access for the general public.  The American telecommunications giant Verizon has filed a case with a federal appeals court against the FCC to appeal the 2010 Open Internet Order.  The Open Internet Order ‘aims to prevent Internet service providers…from interfering with Internet traffic or favouring their own services’ and as such, preserve a network of free access and content for all internet users to enjoy.  Verizon wants to change that by picking and choosing which bits of content it wants to speed up and which bits it wants to slow down, giving premium speed and access to its own content.  This could even mean blocking any content it deems unsavoury for itself or its business partners. Another possibility is that ISP’s would start charging website publishers tolls for access to Verizon’s customers.

 

This type of information exclusivity is very different from the authoritarian Chinese censorship machine this article explored earlier, but it is still an alarming step towards discrimination in favour of large institutions and their interests.  Charging fees for publishing content on top of the time, effort and domain name costs that small bloggers or website owners face will severely mitigate the amount of creative and unique content on the web.  This means that there is an element of discrimination based on economic viability as far as content creation goes.  If large firms are willing to pay top dollar to have their content readily available and even exclusive to Verizon customers, they will shut out smaller firms or publishers looking to make themselves heard by the largest audience on earth.  A key aspect of operating within a representative society is being able to access alternative sources of information.  Should Verizon’s appeal succeed, we could very well find ourselves in a situation where the only information that Americans can access on the internet is that which is bought and sold between huge companies and their interests, which is a violation of the right to free speech and the right to information.

 

The web should remain a free, open and honest source of information and place of conversation for users the world over.  Whether it is an authoritative government looking to limit domestic exposure to international news or large telecommunications firms trying to add to their balance sheets by having content providers pay for premium exposure, the web as we know it is under the threat of real, disruptive change.  The internet gives us a unique and necessary platform from which to exchange and judge information from a huge range of individuals.  In order to preserve this platform, there must be action taken to protect it from authoritarian regimes and large corporations who seek to alter its content and accessibility for their own gain.

 

 

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