We are so used to pointing our fingers at the Chinese for their pathetic attempts to control the web we do not see the fundamental change in Western society and the relationship between the governed and the governing. For example; in the Victorian election internet, as defined by the term ‘social media’, was given credit for the amount of damage it did to the Liberal campaign; with the out-going premier blaming his loss on the social media.
Another example is the prime minister recently degrading the net as electronic graffiti after it was pointed out that the Liberals had no social presence there and consequently was losing votes by the bucket-load.
It is not only communist (or socialist ) societies that are finding it to govern with the net – many Western politicians have been unable to grasp the significant change in power structures; specifically being held responsible for the governments actions and the opportunity the web allows to ‘vote’ immediately on issues that effect us.
We’re on the crest of a wave. At the moment the web is largely open to anyone with enough money to live next to reliable power supply. That obstacle to entry is being ameliorated by the number of mobile phones capable of interacting via web services, like twitter, instagram, etc. The number of mobile phones in all areas of the world is phenomenal. Very poor people have mobile phones. What we saw in Sri Lanka was that people who were too poor to own a phone had their own SIM. They would borrow your phone, pop your SIM out and push theirs in, make the call, switch SIMs back and return the phone.
The interesting thing about that is that the access to the infrastructure is provided by companies who are usually profit driven. By that I mean that there is a point of difference between their agenda and the government agenda. We have already seen that large companies, keen to have access to markets, will allow the government to set the rules. SkyTV and Google did so in China. In some markets, the government still have effective control of the infrastructure. During the Arab Spring some countries were able to “turn off” the internet. It was more pragmatic than trying to stop individual access.
What I think we’ll see is organisation around these platforms by groups attempting to sway opinion. The voice of the people is, according to the mood of the times, lauded or pilloried. Presently it’s tearing Syria apart. In Australia, at present the attitude is ambivalent. The Libs, and I’m sure Labor was doing this too, were producing a lot of material for youtube and trying to get it trending on twitter. The bits that I saw were too ham-fisted to be broadly attractive, they were preaching to the converted.
The internet provides a focus for people to gather “outside space”. That is a part of its phenomenal power. We don’t have a physical boundary. There is a small amount of time shifting too, but it remains temporal in it’s most important aspects. A lot of the concern about the internet has been directed at the idea that things will be lost. People of the future will not have access to our writing. It is more apparent now that this concern is misplaced. However, it is triggered by a very noticeable phenomenon – the sheer quantity of information available. Yesterdays twitter is an ancient relic. This isn’t because it has lost relevance. It is because the quantity of material that is aggregated is so vast that we are constantly looking at the surface. Yesterday’s post are buried by today’s posts.
There is a wait-and-see game being played. This happened with financial activity in the early days. The potential for micro-payments was envisaged as revolution in our behaviour. Transaction costs were essentially zero, so that meant that digital objects could be transacted for nominal values, eg, 1 cent. I saw a number of systems that were being developed and trialled. They were successful, except for one thing. The existing powers in the financial markets would not participate. Why would they? Transaction costs reduced to zero? Millions of transactions being performed without profit? Lunacy. The systems I saw were put in place but the revolution never occurred. The companies that delivered the systems take huge service fees. They charge content developers for access to the systems. They charge consumers for access to the system. The system is not really very expensive to setup or to maintain. However, they control all the gates and operate within an profitable oligopoly.
The present threats to social activity on the web in Australia are the data retention laws (Are they being discussed) and the copyright laws. The data retention laws force the ISPs to record and retain all user activity for two years. Have they effectively outsourced the expensive work of the spy agencies? These censorship laws are used to dampen social behaviour. Are you looking at rude pictures? We’ll find out! Not today, we’re busy, but in a couple of years we might drag up the links and make an issue of it.
The copyright laws are a part of the spectrum of censorship. There are certainly good arguments for fair-pay for fair-use. However, the content is distributed to markets segmented by geography and politics. There is no reason why the US market get to see a movie before the rest of the world. It can be distributed to the entire world simultaneously. The refusal to allow some markets to access the product is the issue. Why can “they” have it when “we” can’t? And why is there a cost difference? The home market (if we think about Hollywood) pays much lower costs than the rest of the world. Yet there are no distribution costs on the internet. So, we have to wonder at this. It raises two flags: censorship (refusal of access) and discriminatory practices ( foreigners enter through this door only. foreigners pay more ).
These two things are blunt instruments but they have the ability to play carrot and stick. Copyright laws are the stick. You download a movie and we will allow the production company to sue you. Has a production company ever tried to sue someone who snuck into a theatre without paying or who recorded to VCR? No. However, our governments are standing beside the content producers. They should be telling them to get their shop in order. Make your product available (no censorship). Don’t discriminate. Learn to charge a fair price.
The carrot is safety. Give up all your rights for safety’s sake. Terrorist lurk in the bushes, we must cut down all bushes. We must retain all your data and pass it to all governments ( except the baddies ). We must know what you are doing for your sake.
And in the need will all this monitoring of the internet work? No, because the freedom of the internet allows the user to increase their productivity; their ability to understand issues and concepts. Knowledge is the true drug of the mind. A country that places sovereign borders around it’s internet will find itself falling backwoods in the long term as other countries increase their productivity.
The mainstream media did not get up and fight for their rights in the recent change to the the metadata laws and they are going to pay for it. Part of the problem is the mainstream media’s slow loss of influence to the internet borne traffic as well as it’s desire to control copyright. As well as public opinion.
Unfortunately you can’t champion free speech on one hand and not protect it with the other. As the net increases it’s power over politics the content providers who work within the system are going to find it harder and harder to justify their attacks on the freedom of the net.
Malcolm Fitzgerald completed a BA with Hons first class in Literature and Communication, Murdoch University, 1989. Forced to learn to use a computer, he discovered the internet, taught himself to code and has been working as a web programmer since 1995.
Christopher Kennedy completed a Bachelor of Asian Studies (Chinese major) at Murdoch University in 1989. He went on to become a journalist and moderated Australia Asia Internet for five years. Since then he has concentrated on fiction.