The End of the Internet As We Know It?

The death of the internet as we know it is now a serious issue amongst those of us who had thought that the renaissance of creativity that we are all experiencing was going to last. In the US a campaign for net neutrality is gaining pace whilst here in the good ‘ole UK it is becoming increasingly difficult to access, free, or even by subscription, the treasures of the net (I still regret the blocking of  The Daily Show archive to UK audiences).
I often used to think how great it would have been to live in 17th century Europe. The time of Shakespeare, the Civil War, a time scientific discoveries challenged ideas long thought to be the God’s truth. Maybe later was good, the industrial revolution, maybe then: after all it was the time when Charles Darwin challenged the bastions of thought that held to the six day creation; or as the steam train and electricity charged our world with speed and excitement, and new fangled gadgets captured images, and began to form them on a screen. These would have been good times, I thought, things changed – things moved. But, for me, in the Sixties, when I was growing up, it seemed that nothing much had changed in a hundred years, well, apart from cars, flight and nuclear weapons, but anyway,  in order to compensate for that we were diving into free love, sex and drugs and rock and roll, tune in turn and drop out. The Seventies – well the less said – and then the Eighties and gradually things began to get interesting, and almost without realising it I began to think that, yes, I was alive at an interesting time, an interesting time that was genuinely changing things. Disruptive technology, the internet, email, even PowerPoint these were things that were beginning to make life different.
If you ever watch any of those old Columbo episodes  where Peter Falk tracks down the bad guy through a piece of new technology, you will realise how far we have come in less than a lifetime. The video recorder, the answer machine, the golf ball typewriter, all were items that Columbo used to trap his man. Now there’s the cell phone, the video phone, remember that? When only space travellers or inhabitants of dystopias could see each other when they phoned. Now there’s Skype and we can share images, videos and opinions instantly, our word of mouth has become our word of  the internet. And, in the beginning, it was also free and really getting interesting, we, the ordinary person, could share our moments, pass on our culture, peer into the world through the eyes of blogs, pictures and information that the click of a button and a decent connection allows, but now it is all shutting down
In her recent address on 21 January to the Newseum in Washington Hillary Clinton  discussed and described the freedoms of the internet, and communicated similar excitement about its existence, but the main thrust of her comments had much more to do with censorship and the limiting of political freedoms, than it did with the private rights of individuals functioning in the already, relatively free (although becoming less so) world. Her ambition to maintain the internet as a place where democracy can thrive is admirable, and Google’s threat to pull out of China because of the ambiguous relationship that the Chinese government has with outspoken citizens is laudable.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the internet is fast becoming riddled with a minefield of copyright nightmares, cease and desist threats, and demands for money that have little or no basis in law and limited moral credibility.
“Repression alone will certainly not solve the problem of internet piracy; it may in many ways even run counter to the rights and freedoms which are part of Europe’s values since the French Revolution.” Viviane Reding
(I used to have a romantic idea that being alive at the time of the French Revolution might have been interesting, possibly a bit too interesting). Viviane Reding, EU telecoms chief, made this comment when warning Spain that the move to cut users off from the internet for contravening copyright regulations, would, at the very least be counterproductive.
“Mixed messages” is the thought that comes to mind, on the one hand America’s sweetheart politician is busy proclaiming the benefits of democracy on the net, while the commercial interests that were so instrumental in the construction of her society, are busy doing their best to dismantle it, or at least the spirit of it.
Fundamentally, it comes down to whether “sharing is theft”. As a parent you spend a great deal of time persuading toddlers that they should “share”, life goes better if you share your toys, your sweets, your crayons, your slide, and in some cultures sharing is an essential and fundamental aspect of survival. But to a music producer, film studio or a picture library, sharing is stealing. Not only that, such stealing can be punished punitively with demands for huge amounts of money, or with the threat of disqualification from a utility that is proven to benefit those on a low income. Little effort is spent in designing imaginative and practical ways of allowing sharing whilst respecting copyright, Creative Commons, Fair Use etc. And who gets stuck in the middle? The teacher, the parent, the sole trader. Increasingly, educators fear the wrath of the big commercial interest, that falls upon them with demands for money for circulating a picture of a celebrity on the school website to cheer up an otherwise dull curriculum. Parents watch TV, content that their children are “safe” upstairs, not checking that they are downloading films, or sharing music on the wrong side of the law. The kids themselves think copyright is a con. They have bought the software and the hardware (or their parents have). They have subscribed to the connection (3G or broadband) how much more should they spend to view a picture or an episode and then pass it on to a friend? Don’t get me wrong I write books, I like my occasional check from the PLR, but there’s my point. There’s a fair and reasonable system for the collection of royalties on books, no one’s going to go to gaol or get fined hundreds of pounds for borrowing my book and if someone chose to make a few copies and pass it round, good luck to them. That system works, it protects my creative rights (I’d still like to adapt it for the Hollywood blockbuster), and generates reasonable income without putting off the customer. Surely the net gurus can think of something that allows us to access and share the rich and wide treasures in the trove, without being branded a thief, and without denying the creators of content (and yes the inevitable middle men) their income. Or am I just naive …. don’t answer that!

Further reading
Brown, Ian, Internet Self-Regulation and Fundamental Rights (January 21, 2010). Index on Censorship, Vol. 1, March 2010. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1539942

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