Wednesday 23 July 2008

Self-regulate or be doomed

Traffic Jam: are we heading for an internet crunch? a sp!ked debate, London, Tuesday 8 July 2008

The internet is supposed to provide a space for freedom of expression and association, but today is often presented as having a dark underbelly that harbours malign forces. From longstanding moral worries about the proliferation of child pornography and ‘harmful’ ideas; to newer fears about privacy infringements, identity theft and claims online publishing is undermining intellectual purity, digital life is greeted with a fair amount of suspicion for its supposed crimes. In many ways, these worries haven’t simply been thrown up in response to the web, but reflect a deeper-running cultural pessimism about people’s ability to make meaningful sense of the world, and our capability to successfully navigate new forms of social interaction when left to our own devices.

A mature discussion about the possibilities of the net should emerge from its longstanding libertarian discourse, but can only be had from a more future-orientated perspective, and a sp!ked debate held at the Institute of Engineers took such a tack, asking if rumours that cyberspace is clogging up and slowing down are true, why there is such a bleak attitude towards digital growth, and what the future of the web will look like. The questions have a practical focus: with the number of users on the increase and more material posted and archived daily, along with a general shift towards online publishing, banking, shopping and communication, the issue of speed and space is becoming crucial for businesses and individuals alike. Though fears about slowing are far from new, they stimulate valuable consideration of what models of growth are viable, who should be footing the development bill, and how growth will change lines of online authority and the landscape of regulative power.

In taking the technical perspective and interrogating the economics of the net, the debate attempted the difficult task of lining up considerations of how the technology itself works with discussion about its social effects, and in so doing managed to tease out some important implications about online freedom. For instance, given the absence of innovation from business to implement better online models and develop new software, it seems a role for the state in funding – and regulating – internet development has been created. Whilst state-funding could be resisted out of Orwellian fears about opening Big Brother’s paternalistic eye (wider), this seems to mix up technological development with its use and implementation. But with consensus in the room verging around the idea that digital regulation should be half given over to ‘the market’ (and the one for porn and ‘dodgy’ goods is no doubt bigger than six inches), will there soon be need for public subsidy of upstanding online services like the BBC, and where does this leave something like the blogosphere as an independent space for comment and criticism that can vie with existing authorities? If, as the panel mostly agreed, users should ‘pay for what they get’, with higher bandwidths being available for those who can afford them, and sites making money either through advertising revenue or by charging to view, where does this leave the idea of the internet as a free and open space for all?

As many commentators point out, the web has never been either ‘free’ or ‘open’. The difference between the world wide web, and the many (often private) networks that are a part of it, is important when it comes to thinking about openness, and what a ‘free’ space would look like has never been clear. In this, part of the debate revolved around the concept of ‘net neutrality’, following a legal contest that has been playing out in Canada recently. Publicly supported by Google but recently renounced by Yahoo, net neutrality is the idea that the internet should be ‘free and open’, and is usually associated with a defence of the free market as providing fair grounds of competiveness and opportunity. The term has begun to factor in some UK discussions, and though it raises important political concerns, is symptomatic of the encroaching trend towards arguing over the internet in technical and legalistic terms. By assuming a ready-made understanding of a free and open web, the need for a broader discourse about how we want our public spaces to be is sidestepped, and the discussion ends up starting from a deference to the technology, rather than being born out of thinking about what we want it to do for us.

On this, Chris Marlesdon from the University of Essex made the interesting point that net neturality is primarily an American idea, and attitudes towards – and information available about – the internet differ on both sides of the pond. For instance, Internet Service Providers (ISPS) have recently signed a code of conduct with Offcom to self-regulate, though this fact has escaped mainstream discourse. In the UK, Marlesdon noted the spectre of the ISP has become ‘a regulatory panacea for Government’, in that ISPs are expected to regulate what users can and can’t see, often being held responsible for blocking sites deemed illegal. By calling this ‘self-regulation’, it appears that ISPs themselves are deciding what’s viable, whereas they are rather responding to requests from Government, various lobby groups and business. What is actually censorship effectively becomes privatised regulation that avoids the public gaze.

This discussion takes some teasing out: recent legislation like the Anti-Terrorism Bill that makes owning or distributing any ‘terrorist’ material illegal both on and off-line, may be unpalatable, but the best opposition lies against the law itself rather than its specific implementation online, whereas the problem lies really with the culture that created the law in the first place. For UK ISPs to reject any responsibility for blocking ‘terrorist’ websites would be a step in the right direction, but this wouldn’t solve the problem of appropriating the notion of ‘self-regulation’ to push through agendas from above. The move towards taking this as a technical issue to do with legitimate self-regulation, rather than one of censorship comes partly out of consideration of the participatory ethos of Web 2.0, but also reflects a deeper shift in the understanding of freedom of speech in climate with constantly shifting cultural authorities. 

Concerning this, Executive Editor of The Register, Andrew Orlowski followed up the point by talking about the crisis of authority amongst the political and media classes which leads to fantasising about the utopic potential of the web. He put his finger on the schizophrenic reaction towards digital life today that fears what people are actually saying and doing, yet defends the dislocated ideal of them being able to do it. The Left is in fantasy land when it comes to the internet, but the libertarian nature of its technology makes it easy to idealise from both sides of the traditional divide. Both views are born from a lack of clear political direction, whilst the reality of the internet and what it means is a lot more innocuous, needing more grounded debate in order to move forwards.

In this, an early point made by Rob Killick, CEO of cScape, that when it comes to the internet there is a dislocation of experience from the technology, signals a way through. Consideration of who pays for web development and how business and individuals can make money online sit best in a context that considers what people are already doing online, and why. The web has always had its naive defenders and moody critics, but what seems missing is a middle ground for discussion that gets away from dislocated concerns about the future of politics, yet acknowledges the technology itself is not the be and end all of the issue. 

There will be a debate on internet freedom at the Battle of Ideas on the 1-2 November

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