The tug-of-war continues
Its birth heralded a new age of intellectual freedom. Now the internet is under siege.india Updated: Dec 25, 2012 23:16 IST
It's all about control. Of course, nobody uses that particular term. The talk is always about "governance" or "regulation", but really it's about control. Ever since the internet burst into public consciousness in 1993, the big question has been whether the most disruptive communications technology since print would be captured by the established power structures: nations and corporations. And since then, virtually every newsworthy event in the evolution of the network has really just been another skirmish in the ongoing war to control the internet.
This year closed with two such skirmishes. In Dubai, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) staged the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT-12). The ostensible purpose was to do what the ITU does: update the regulations that harmonise international telecommunications
But because the ITU is a UN body, some regimes construed it as an opportunity for governments to control the net. In the event, that ambition remained unfulfilled, though some fatuous wording found its way into the final communique of the conference.
The underlying reality was that most western countries refused to buy into the agendas of authoritarian and/or developing countries who sought to use the conference as a means to the ends that they desired. WCIT-12 was nevertheless a significant event in the evolution of the internet because it demonstrated that the war to control the network not only goes on, but is increasing in intensity.
Meanwhile, in another part of the forest, another skirmish took place. Instagram, a photo-sharing service which Facebook recently acquired, abruptly changed its terms and conditions. Under the new T&C, the hapless users of the service were required to agree that Instagram could use any or all of their photographs for advertising and other purposes, at its sole discretion.
This caused such a storm that the company rowed back - a bit. Most people saw this as just another illustration of the old internet adage: if the service is free then you are the product. Others saw it as evidence that Facebook is determined to "monetise" its billion-plus users in any way it can. But however one interprets it, the inescapable fact is that it demonstrates the extent to which giant internet corporations will try to control their users.
In the early, heady days of the net - that is to say between 1983 and 1993 - we 'netizens' believed that the network really was something unprecedented: a communications system that lay beyond the reach of the established power structures of our societies.
But as WCIT-12 showed, States may be having trouble getting a grip on the net, but they won't give up on the project.