What Is The Internet? Depends Who You Ask
Do you spend much time thinking about what shape the internet is? Following on from that – do you expend much energy in wondering what it is that allows it to retain that shape?
If it really is just a black mirror then surely all it does is reflect the world in microcosm, but then it doesn’t seem to me such a simple transliteration of all the dynamics of the world. The internet is its own thing – it puts its own spin on the whole shebang, and this comes from a mixture of the way information is delivered, and the scope of transmission that people have, which is generally not the rule of law for their daily life.
You might recommend a book to a friend, or quote something from a film, as verbal short-hand for a concept or a feeling in your daily life, but it takes on a whole other dimension when you render it digitally. A meme, or a remix, or link-blogging is a little different than a verbal quote or a recommendation, it often involves a physical interaction with the product you are communicating about. That means that the rules of fair usage and copyright come into play on some level, and these are not things that most people outside of print media or other media really spend too much time thinking about.
Hey, if Elon Musk can make a boob that involves sharing art that may be in copyright violation on his Tesla operating system, then we all stand a chance of being found wanting in our respect of someone else’s intellectual property, and he more than likely has copyright lawyers up the wazoo.
Free speech versus hate speech likewise becomes just a little harder to police when you are a privately owned platform that spins itself as being an indispensable public arena for connecting with others. When does the private elide into the public sphere, and what duty do you have to make sure that your own privately established code of ethics tally with those that are accepted in the wider society? Well, even though people don’t necessarily pay for your service, at least in a direct manner, they are bringing a set of expectations to the table that are likely to blur the boundaries and the rules further than any merely legal description of the set-up is likely to do.
Internet Regulation Is An Unwieldy Thing
When you curtail freedom of expression are you removing a necessary channel through which the complaints and concerns of a certain sector of society might be identified and handled? When someone is in an electronic walled garden and they and others have opted into a certain ethos, is it a private space or a public space? As the person providing the server that a hate group secretly gathers on to plot anti-social actions do you have a responsibility to report it or shut it down? When people are paying customers they may consider, unless it is explicit in your Terms Of Agreement, that expressing themselves per the remit of the First Amendment and Free Speech Laws, that they have done nothing to contravene any rules that would see a suspension of their community.
Moral relativism gets a very tricky beast to handle when you start to claim that it is immediately obvious that some groups should be given no quarter, but that some comparatively problematic groups are covered under the law. Hate speech has been a problem for a long time, because how does one handle it and still maintain the tenets of free speech? Different laws designed to handle different problems in society rub against each other with considerable friction when it comes to free speech.
A lot of the things that are being discussed around the content that is on the web call to mind all the controversy that surrounded sampling when it first entered mainstream consciousness, and artists whose work had been used began to question both the fairness and legality of their work being used without their say-so and without any kind of recompense. The EU has tried to push through something to change Copyright law to address this, but there are concerns that this will seriously impact on the nature of how things move around the internet, and whether it will irreparably harm what has in some sense become the lingua franca of the internet.
What is the internet? It is like asking those old blind men about the elephant they are dealing with – you are going to get some conflicting answers. Just look at the heated debate about deregulation and the separation of the internet into fast lanes and throttled lanes, and you begin to see that those who provide the infrastructure do not occupy the same viewpoint as those who are using the services. The internet is larger than the infrastructure it is built on as an idea and a potential; it cannot be boiled down into some technical description, and there are probably as many descriptions of what it means to people as there are people.
Facebook wants the internet to be Facebook. A scary amount of the infrastructure is on Amazon Web Servers. How many people access it through an Apple Device? How much of the internet’s traffic is gated through a Google Search? Firefox, Chrome or Edge? Or maybe Safari. There are a lot of entities that might claim to be a determining factor in what shape the internet manifests in. And then there are the people – the users. How much content is created by them, and how much does their usage drive the way infrastructure is developed? How integral has this system made itself in the way businesses are run, and the way in which people interact?
The internet is a powerful thing, and the direction it moves forward into the future is important to a lot of people. Politicians who wish to regulate bump up against the problem of, with so much stuff on the internet owned by people that do not own the infrastructure, why should the rulings be in favor of those who do not necessarily have the best interests of the internet in mind when developing their policies regarding the way they manage their portion of the infrastructure.
Should there be a different set of rules for the internet, or are the laws of the land enough to regulate it? How do you enforce those laws when the scope for violation is so huge, and crosses so many international borders? it’s a hard question to answer, and a lot of the answers that have been formulated thus far by those in power have been more than a little controversial. One thing that can be said for certain about the internet is that whatever happens it will continue to evolve – new rules which push users in new directions, and new hardware will change the way it is used, and as we add a continual layering of multi-generational variation into the mix, where the internet ends up is likely to be a long way from where it started.