October 31 2012

The Internet: What Happens Next?

Posted by Naomi in Debate, Development, Internet

This week we lament the loss of Ceefax. The information service has been running on televisions since the 1970s but is now outdated and underused. The digital communication of information has evolved and Teletext has died out. Ceefax is replaced by the BBC’s Red Button but ultimately the internet is winning in the digital communication jungle: it is more visually appealing, faster and contains far more information. But obviously this isn’t the end of the evolutionary line, so what does the future hold?

Courstey of mb21.co.uk

Several factors can influence the future of the internet - government intervention, corporate behaviour and us, the public. Government policy and business decisions shape internet supply, availability and functionality but we drive usage and demand. In response to unwelcome changes by the former, websites have been set up to complain or monitor effects, books have been written and large scale protests have taken place.

Tension is increasing between two opposing views of the internet - as a haven for freedom of speech and expression or as something within the jurisdiction of legal and moral rules. The two are not necessarily mutually exclusive; offline we normally consider ourselves to have a right to freedom of speech whilst at the same time culpable for illegal offenses. Yet in the case of the internet, either side seems to believe that to make even the slightest concession to the other is to open the floodgates to a worst case scenario - be that a heavily censored internet under complete government control or a hive of illegal and immoral activity.

Courtesy of mystady.com

The argument is between pragmatism and idealism- do we accept that the internet must be regulated in some respects or do we maintain an ideology of the internet as free, universal and limitless? There is a huge debate surrounding the issue with influential supporters on both sides and the way in which resolution – if possible - occurs will dictate the future of the internet. Modern technology is 'completely out of control' according to Lord chief justice, Lord Judge - but is this in practice or in principle? Sarkozy argues that the internet ‘isn’t a parallel universe’ - why should we allow anything online that we legitimately do not permit offline? Meanwhile, Neelie Kroes, the vice-president of the European commission, calls for the removal of ‘digital handcuffs’ in agreement with Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s belief that the internet is ‘for everyone’.

But this is not just a verbal dispute - this year we have seen action on both sides. In the UK we have seen the removal of videos featuring and promoting gang culture from youtube, a crack down on illegal downloads and the proposal of an ‘opt-in’ system devised to protect children from online pornography. There have even been multiple arrests over offensive tweets in cases of racism and other types of abuse prompting questions over whether this type of action is too ‘heavy handed’. From the other side, we saw  websites such as google and wikipedia take part in a blackout protest against US government anti-piracy proposals in the allegation that they would lead to government censorship.

The issue with individual governments exerting control over the internet is that the internet, in that it consists of the world wide web, is intended to be world wide.  Sir Tim Berners-Lee claims that 'This is a question of principle, it's a right to be able to access [the web] anywhere'. Government controls introduce localised differences raising worries that the future could bring a series of fragmented, independent internets. This is already noticeable on a small scale - the internet looks different depending on where you are in the world. Many countries ban specific websites containing political or religious content and social media sites completely. This year we have seen Twitter introduce and implement a new ‘Country Withheld Content’ feature, allowing the removal of specific content from one country only. It was recently used to remove neo-nazi content in Germany and France but not the rest of the world.

Perhaps protestors are too idealistic in regarding the internet as something ‘universal’ because this is merely a concept and not the reality of the internet as we know it. The internet did not begin freely open to all and is now being restricted- perhaps  as an idea but as an actual entity it is limited by hardware and physical infrastructure which are not equally freely available. A digital divide has existed between developed and developing countries preventing equal access to the web. In view of this, maybe the recent government interventions we have witnessed seem less like a drastic and sudden attempt at control.

So is the internet out of control, uncontrollable or beyond control? Which side is right, or perhaps more importantly, which side wins will shape the future of the internet. We can’t predict the future of the internet as clearly as these children from the 90s but one thing is clear – hyperbolic slippery slope arguments are not what we need, because if we remain at a standoff then we miss opportunities for mutual benefit.

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