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Their Internet or Ours?
April 21, 2018The April 21, 2018 issue of Other Voices, the Connexions newsletter, asks "What happened to the Internet?"
The Internet, at one time a free and open space for sharing information and ideas, has been privatized and twisted to serve the profit-making agenda of huge corporations, working hand-in-glove with governments which want to suppress opposition and alternatives. What can we do about it? Is it our Internet or theirs?
Some thirty years ago, the Internet, which up to that time had been a communications network used by the U.S. military and a handful of elite academic institutions, was becoming available to tech-savvy members of the public. Electronic Mail (E-mail) was coming into wider user. USENET discussion groups and Bulletin Board Systems (BBS), which allowed users the ability to share information and engage in discussions with like-minded individuals, were proliferating. In the late 1980s, Tim Berners-Lee developed the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP), a key break-through which made the World Wide Web possible.
A fundamental dimension of the Internet of that time was its hostility to any form of commercial or corporate use. Many systems expressly forbad all advertising or the use of email to send commercial messages of any kind. Servers were run by non-profit institutions.
But the very openness of the Internet made it possible for companies to set up their own Web presence. Commercial Internet Service Providers sprang into being. There was no governing authority which could stop them, and with limitless amounts of money and resources at their disposal, within a few years their presence swamped the anarchic early Internet. Aspects on Internet management were privatized by the U.S. government. Private companies were created to sell Internet domain names, requiring any organization with a website to pay an annual licensing fee to a private company. If there were disagreements about the use of a domain name, large corporations would almost automatically prevail over small non-profits.
In the new millennium, these trends accelerated. New forms of communications networks were created, and nearly all were controlled by corporations. Cell phones used networks owned by private companies: an inefficient and wasteful, but very profitable, approach. Social media and communications apps sprang into being, and even though they are perfectly suited to being controlled co-operatively by their users and the workers who maintain them, they are almost all corporate.
As the Internet became privatized, the dominant corporations were no longer content to merely publish advertising in the manner of the print media. Now, they entered the business of spying on their users: gathering every possible piece of information about them, and then not only using that information to target their own ads, but also selling it to any other commercial entity with the budget to pay for it. The state, in the form of its national security establishments, get to access the data as well.
Governments did everything they could to facilitate the commercialization and corporatization of the Internet, but they also have their own agendas. A key preoccupation for a government is maintaining its own legitimacy. The mainstream media, including online media platforms, play an important part in what Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman called manufacturing consent.
But a problem with the Internet is that it allows for alternative points of view to be disseminated as well. Even though alternative media and individual bloggers have nowhere near the reach of the commercial and state media, some at least have attracted large audiences because they challenge the official narratives. They have helped to undermine the credibility of governments and mainstream media because they continually challenge their lies and distortions. Those in power see this as a major problem, and an intolerant affront.
The result has been another set of manoeuvres to push these insolent challengers deeper into the shadows. One part of this corporate-state offensive has been legislation to end net neutrality in the United States. Whereas previously all information on the Internet moved in the same way, over the same available bandwidth, now corporations that control the technical infrastructure are allowed to give priority to some information, while slowing down other content. This will mean that websites owned by companies able to pay for better service will be served up fast, while those who arent able to pay will be slowed down. Given the nature of the Internet, where people expect to click on something and then see it instantly, sites that take five or ten seconds to load because they are on the slowed infrastructure will lose a huge percentage of their users.
Meanwhile corporations like Google and Facebook, in the name of combating fake news and anti-social views, are taking steps to downgrade or effectively eliminate views critical of the status quo. Google has changed its algorithms to downgrade or disappear content from many alternative websites. Facebook is filtering its newsfeeds to ensure that the news being shared comes from reputable sources. By reputable sources, they mean the corporate media.
What can we do? The articles in this issue help to explain the dimensions of the problem. They offer some tools, for example tools for protecting your privacy and securing your devices, and they make some suggestions, such as moving away from corporate platforms to the extent that you feel able to do so.
Other Voices offers a couple of other suggestions:
1) Try to avoid sharing any news articles that appear in the mainstream media.
2) Do share content that appears in the alternative media and on alternative websites (e.g. Connexions!) When we share content directly (whether in social media, by email, etc.) we give a boost to critical views and analyses, and help more people to find them and see them.
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