So who’s breaking the internet this time?

I’m not sure how many times I’ve been told that the internet is under dire threat over the last few years. It sometimes seems as though there’s an apocalypse just around the corner pretty much all the time. Something’s going to ‘break’ the internet unless we do something about it right away. These last few weeks there seem to have been a particularly rich crop of apocalyptic warnings – Obama’s proposal about net neutrality yesterday being the most recent. The internet as we know it seems as though it’s always about to end.

Net neutrality will destroy us all…

If we are to believe the US cable companies, Obama’s proposals will pretty much break the internet, putting development back 20 years. How many of us remember what the internet was like in 1994? Conversely, many have been saying that if we don’t have net neutrality – and Obama’s proposals are pretty close to what most people I know would understand by net neutrality – then the cable companies will break the internet. It’s apocalypse one way, and apocalypse the other: no half measures here.

The cable companies are raising the spectre of government control of the net, something that has been a terror of internet freedom activists for a very long time – in our internet law courses we start by looking at John Perry Barlow’s 1996 ‘Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace’, with its memorable opening:

“Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.” 

Another recent incarnation of this terror has been the formerly much hyped fear that the UN, through the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) was about to take over the internet, crushing our freedom and ending the Internet as we know it. Anyone with real experience of the way that UN bodies work would have realised this particular apocalypse had next-to-no chance of every coming into fruition, and last week that must have become clear to most of even the more paranoid of internet freedom fighters, as the ITU effectively resolved not to even try… Not that apocalypse, at least not now.

More dire warnings and apocalyptic worries have been circling about the notorious ‘right to be forgotten’ – either in its data protection reform version or in the Google Spain ruling back in May. The right to be forgotten, we were told, is the biggest threat to freedom of speech in the coming decade, and will change the internet as we know it. Another thing that’s going to break the internet. And yet, even though it’s now effectively in force in one particular way, there’s not much sign that the internet is broken yet…

The deep, dark, disturbing web…

At times we’re also told that a lack of privacy will break the net – or that privacy itself will break the net. Online behavioural advertisers have said that if they’re not allowed to track us, we’ll break the economic model that sustains the net, so the net itself will break. We need to let ourselves be tracked, profiled and targeted or the net itself will collapse.  The authorities seem to have a similar view – recent pronouncements by Metropolitan Police Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe and new head of GCHQ Robert Hannigan are decidedly apocalyptic, trying to terrify us with the nightmares of what they seemingly interchangeably call the ‘dark’ web or the ‘deep’ web. Dark or deep, it’s designed to disturb and frighten us – and warn us that if we keep on using encryption, claiming anonymity or pseudonymity or, in practice, any kind of privacy, we’ll turn the internet into a paradise only for paedophiles, murderers, terrorists and criminals. It’s the end of the internet as we know it, once more.

And of course there’s the converse view – that mass surveillance and intrusion by the NSA, GCHQ etc, as revealed by Edward Snowden – is itself destroying the internet as we know it.

Money, money, money

Mind you, there are also dire threats from other directions. Internet freedom fighters have fought against things like SOPA, PIPA and ACTA – ways in which the ‘copyright lobby’ sought to gain even more control over the internet. Again, the arguments go both ways. The content industry suggest that uncontrolled piracy is breaking the net – while those who fought against SOPA etc think that the iron fist of copyright enforcement is doing the same. And for those that have read Zittrain’s ‘The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It’, it’s something else that’s breaking the net – ‘appliancization’ and ‘tethering’. To outrageously oversimplify, it’s the iPhone that’s breaking the net, turning it from a place of freedom and creativity into a place for consumerist sheep.

It’s the end of the internet as we know it…..

…or as we think we know it. We all have different visions of the internet, some historical, some pretty much entirely imaginary, most with elements of history and elements of wishful thinking. It’s easy to become nostalgic about what we imagine was some golden age, and fearful about the future, without taking a step back and wondering whether we’re really right. The internet was never a ‘wild west’ – and even the ‘wild west’ itself was mostly mythical – and ‘freedom of speech’ has never been as absolute as its most ardent advocates seem to believe. We’ve always had some control and some freedom – but the thing about the internet is that, in reality, it’s pretty robust. We, as an internet community, are stronger and more wilful than some of those who wish to control it might think. Attempts to rein it in often fail – either they’re opposed or they’re side-stepped, or they’re just absorbed into the new shape of the internet, because the internet is always changing, and we need to understand that. The internet as we know it is always ending – and the internet as we don’t know it is always beginning.

That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t fight for what we want – precisely the opposite. We should always do so. What it does mean is that we have to understand is that sometimes we will win, and sometimes we will lose. Sometimes it will be good that we win, sometimes it will be good when we lose. Whatever happens, we have to find a way – and we probably will.

10 thoughts on “So who’s breaking the internet this time?

  1. another potential ‘breaker’ of the internet – more ‘lowlevel’ censorship.

    e.g. the women action media project claiming it aims to help people report ‘gendered harassment’ on twitter has just got a few people suspended from twitter who weren’t harassing anyone but who are critics of feminism. Most notably for British tweeters – @Nero. Nero/MIlo’s account has been reinstated, showing it was not a justified ban.

    the fact the internet allows for ‘filters’ -whether it be ISPs filtering x-rated material or websites/online publications blocking and deleting individual users is probably essential for the internet to function. you cant let *all* information in. but this facility also has a negative effect especially on freedom of speech and especially when used politically. I don’t think it will break the internet but it does have the potential to ‘break’ and censor individuals and particular viewpoints. I think, like the internet, I’m pretty tough though as no amount of blocking, banning and ‘filtering’ of me and my opinions has put me off online communication. yet!

    • I think that’s kind of the point – this kind of censorship is growing, but so is the resistance to it. When UK ISPs were told to bring in filters, they found the uptake of those filters was minimal…. we fight back, and we often win.

  2. Amussing roundup.
    There is an analogy and a connection with mobile technology.
    The analogy is that the mobile wasn’t invented yesterday, but was a series of inventions and cultural shifts.
    The cultural shifts are significant and subtle. Here’s an example.
    A young woman walks into the cafe where I am sitting. I find myself admiring her legs. She has to walk past my table.
    Yesterday:honestly I don’t know how she might have ‘coped’, a smile, ignoring me? But I do know it would not have been intently engaged on her mobile with just a momentary rather fed up flicker of recognition that I have noticed her. On the specifics many would say this is better. All I am pointing out is that it is very different and that, extrapolating into so many social situations people, not just me, can find themselves in, things have changed.
    So, by analogy, the cultural shifts are vast, but also subtle, and certainly invention is not isolated from adoption.
    The connection is in, for instance, the very complex technology that mobiles now use where it is a two way street. The mobile uses the internet to enhance information that I am consuming even where I am not using the internet. Meanwhile, if I do use the internet from my mobile it mediates that use in many complex and subtle ways.
    Technologies (and attendant domain knowledge) that were pioneered in universities (although sadly not UK ones) around six years ago are now worked up with much effort to fit with mobile usage.
    I maybe mistaken about this but an example is, I believe, the logic of time partitioning worked up by a student of Tim Finn at the University of Maryland. Time partitioning and location services are intimately connected, but completely built in to many mobile functions now.
    Are such things the Internet or addons? Obviously they are a part of it, what Paul refers to as the ever evolving nature.
    So there is another observation to be made here.
    This is to do with the critical point (mass) where cultural adoption takes place. That adoption is a new ‘norm’ and norms, by their nature, are difficult to question.
    These issues are more to do with the tension between wanting to feel secure and being weary of being lulled into a false sense of security. The mobile phone is just one example of a tethered device. There will be many others with varying degrees of usefulness, intrusiveness and other dimensional criteria by which we will judge them. (Addictive, exploitative suggest themselves for negatives.)
    And we, being human, will struggle between being lulled and being leary as we should.

  3. What’s that oft repeated phrase again…? That ‘the Internet sees censorship as damage and routes around it’. I think this is true, but not just limited to censorship. Part of the beauty of the web is its organic, fluid nature. Blocks that get put in place end up becoming irrelvant through innovation. It’s inspiring, but also means we still need to be vigilant to ensure the blocks don’t become so big they cripple freedom for too long.

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