Two decades back, when the internet had softly launched itself as the new information super-highway, the change in technology was ground breaking. As imagination ran wild about the possible uses of the new technology, least discussed was the backlash the internet might face from the power structures it was destined to challenge. The revulsions from these power structures – state and non-state – is setting up a battle for the next decade; it will set the contours of political influence for masses across the world and will also determine the limits of tolerance of the democratic tradition.
The genesis of this battle is simple. The vertical flow of information had taken roots in every society and so had the bureaucratic structures around them. These included government information systems, universities and other repositories of information like archives where material was locked up for decades before a common man found its mention in a well-researched book. Newspapers filled some of the gap.
Any feeble sense of an information blockade on the part of governments was assuaged by news-stories or put off by the state citing reasons of national interest.
The internet however changed this model of information flow — a horizontal information grid, where users connected and formed their own spaces of information exchange, replaced an asymmetrical vertical information model. As state control over information weakened, so did power. Non-state actors like newspapers, which made money from information distribution, soon found out that the money stream was broken. Internet did not pay. It broke the relationship between publishers and businesses, where the latter paid the former for advertisement space. The internet’s unlimited space provided much cheaper alternatives.
Frantic efforts by the newspaper industry to survive and find a revenue stream on the internet have lately been under some scrutiny.
Apple promised an array of possible solutions, mostly in the form of applications used in their gadgets — iPads, iPhones and iPods. The idea is to make access easier for the user and charge him for the service. Newspapers also have pay-walls for certain material. The industry is gasping, and will only find accommodation by adapting to the horizontal model, though some bureaucratic structures will come in place for securing money from distribution of information.
But a bigger challenge to internet freedom is being mounted by the state that feels threatened by the power of information rescued by the people. Vint Cerf, who shares the title of “fathers of the internet” with Bob Kahn, sees a power struggle in the control of information.
“Political structures … are often scared by the possibility that the general public might figure out that they don’t want them in power.” His statement meant to caution about the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), which, in his view, is poised to assume the role of global internet cop. “There is strong indication that the internet will enter the picture (for the ITU),” Cerf said at the Freedom to Connect conference in Washington DC.
To counter this threat, developers of the internet will have to revisit the principles on which it was built and look for ways to maintain the same values without compromising much freedom. Google chairman Eric Schmidt reflected on this weakness in his recent speech at the Science Museum in London. He said that the internet would be vulnerable for at least 10 years, and that every node of the public web needed upgrading to protect against crime. Fixing the problem was a “huge task” as the internet was built “without criminals in mind”, he said.
Does that, however, mean that the internet can be freed from state assault? Probably not. Google has publicly expressed that countries, which carry out cyber crime and wreak online havoc, pose the greatest threat to the future of the internet. Google co-founder, Seregy Brin, cited “very powerful forces” that are underpinning internet freedom. While he named government censorship as one of the forces, he said information giants like Facebook and Apple too had “restrictive” policies.
“I thought there was no way to put the genie back in the bottle, but now it seems in certain areas the genie has been put back in the bottle,” he told The Guardian in London. About Facebook and Apple, he said, “You have to play by their rules, which are really restrictive… once you get too many rules, that will stifle innovation.”
While the tech-giants will challenge each others’ ideas, masses in the next decade will determine the freedom that the internet will offer for expression of thought and access to information. In the epic struggle between liberty and rights, between masses and classes, the internet will be the new battleground.