The World Wide Web has grown dramatically, since it was established by Sir Tim Berners-Lee. Today, the ‘uber network’ contains at least 18 billion pages, connects numerous networks around the globe and is populated by an estimated quarter of the earth’s population. In case we have not noticed before, it was last semester that most of us learned (from the BBC documentary Mr. Müller showed us) that the web reshaped, is reshaping and will continue to reshape all kinds of media and by that influences our perceptions, our attitudes and the way we think – that makes overall pretty much every aspect of human life being reshaped!
I do not intend to bore you with facts you already know. This blog post serves the purpose of taking a closer look on relevant facts and opinions on governance of our lovely, digital, parallel universe, in order to give a satisfying answer on the lead-question.
Information technology, especially the internet, is considered to be the main driving force behind the Information Age. The reason for the web’s rapid growth and popularity is not hard to make out: Berners-Lee decided not to patent his brainchild, HyperTextMarkupLanguage – “the predominant markup language for websites”, but to make it freely available for anybody. Hence, the web became decentralized, “anarchic”-self-regulating and somewhat of a mirror of society itself. Well more precisely a global mirror of individuals and organizations that are lucky enough to access the web’s giant resources of words, pictures, facts, opinions, games, files, videos, ads and offers.
The problem with the given resources is, that they all are created by somebody – who does not necessarily share the web pioneers’ hippie-mentality and would rather have his audience buying his or her work, instead of downloading/accessing it for free (somewhere on the net).
Whom can these people turn to, to claim their rights, if there is no such thing as a centralized internet authority? Well there are real-world authorities online: National authorities, big + powerful corporations and copy right clubs like the GEMA or the GVU, for instance.
I guess you must have heard by now, that Germany’s favorite “stream search machine” was shut down, by German police? If you have not, I’d strongly suggest checking out Anja’s take on that one! Kino.to is probably one of the best current examples to take a closer look at in order to research controversy on web governance in general. On one side, there are, for instance, the spokes people of the GVU, who justify police actions, by claiming that free-streaming-sites were responsible for “massive, economic damages of the film industry”, and announce possible legal consequences for steaming-users. On the other hand there are people and groups, such as the famous hacktivists “Anonymous”, or the “Piratenpartei” (literally ‘pirate party’ – a German political party), who criticize any censorship of the net and the criminalization of consumers (legally questionable BTW, indeed, since kino.to watchers did not exactly downloaded anything, except you are including temporary files created for a short time in the dark depths of a hard drive in your download definition) – good old Potter Stewart perfectly sums up their point: “Censorship reflects society’s lack of confidence in itself. It is a hallmark of an authoritarian regime. “
Simply forbidding something sure is a lot easier to do, than to actually think of an alternative, that satisfies both the supply– and the demand side.
Let’s take a look on a similar ‘old school’ problem. Do you remember Napster? Yes, I’m talking about the peer-to-peer pioneer file-sharing service it used to be, back in the days. Do you remember the fuss that was pretty much omnipresent in popular media about file-sharing being a big threat to the people working in the music industry? How did this story ‘ended’ again? Napster got sued, sold and restructured. But Napster was not the only one that had to change – the whole music industry got reshaped: Today we can pretty much listen to any song we like online (for free!), we are offered a variety of sites where we can purchase the songs we like inexpensively (They work, since they gives us virus-free, high-quality sound we were willing to pay for!) and some musicians/companies started to offer free promotional downloads of songs (or snippets aka appetizers). Additionally we’re still exchanging music with our friends and guess what file-sharing programs/networks did not completely vanished together with the old Napster. Does that keep superstars from earning millions? No, statistics show that they’re still well off.
I assume that there’s no need to sue teenaged fans for their love then, right? (Note: No pun intended! My assumption focuses on the kind of love that is expressed through consumption of the admired(’s) product – be it purchased, streamed, borrowed, or downloaded.) After all understanding multi-millionaires are so much more worth worshipping/supporting, than mean and ignorant ones…
What did these examples represent anyway? Well I chose to choose these subjects in order to illustrate how things are regulated on the net in general. (Studying the political structure of single sites or their influence/power was not my intention. And it would’ve been “Too Far Afield”, to be addressed accurately in one little post!)
My conclusion: The World Wide Web is the most perfect market, people could possibly create! It’s a good place to watch Smith’s “Invisible Hand” operate, since it is (as already established) self-regulated by its participants (individuals in different positions, following different incentives). There is no ‘sovereign of the Internet’, therefore there’s nobody to supervise the web. The web’s population however consists of citizens of various (governed) states, which should expect punishment in case that they violate any of their laws online. Is there anyone smart to back up my conclusion? Yes, asking Google to search the web for “internet+self+regulating+market” results in about 2 million hits. Some of them are gems; like this excellent article –, by Stephen J. Kolbrin, who does not only back up my findings, but also gives interesting arguments and opinions on governmental regulations of the web – it might be of interest to you to take a closer look at it yourself. And while you’re at it I’ll give you some more links to cram your tabs: one, two, three.
All good things come to an end – this post has taken up your attention for long enough! Because of that and because of me being truly interested in my dear reader’s opinion, I’d like to ask you to answer the last remaining question: “Should the internet be ‘for free’, or would it be appropriate for state governments to raise taxes on global information (in order to support online-newspapers, for instance)?” Tell me all about it!