When we are caught in the centre of an emerging phenomenon, in the eye of the networked information age's storm, only the clearest thinkers can lead us to safe harbour. Historians have the benefit of hindsight, while those writers who have predicted everything from the demise of the English language through SMS messaging to the disappearance of musical innovation thanks to peer-to-peer filesharing will no doubt be silenced in the passing of time.
A half dozen books have informed my thinking about the effects of the internet: Eric S Raymond's The Cathedral and the Bazaar, which charts the rise of open source programming; Lawrence Lessig's trilogy on cyberlaw - Code, The Future of Ideas, and Free Culture; Chris Anderson's The Long Tail, a study of the way the internet affects commercial markets; and Yochai Benkler's The Wealth of Networks, which examines the economics of production in the intellectual commons.
Becky Hogge is openDemocracy's technology commissioning editor
Also by Becky Hogge in openDemocracy, a selection from her "Virtual reality" column and other articles:
"The Great Firewall of China" (May 2005)
"Why the WSIS? Democracy and cyberspace"
"Global voices: blogging the world"
"Some grown-up questions for Google" (February 2006)
"Internet freedom comes of age" (February 2006)
"Payday for the free internet" (March 2006)
"Internet Hoaxes hit politics" (April 2006)
"Microsoft: closed windows and hidden vistas" (April 2006)
"The battle for net neutrality" (May 2006)
"Open source ubuntu" (May 2006)
"The Crown's copyright con" (July 2006)
"Amnesty's China hit-list" (July 2006)
"Whose space? Abuse and control in social networks"
"Anonymity on the net" (August 2006)
Last week I encountered another book to add to my list. With one eye on the realities of the legislature, and the other on the sanctity of freedom of expression, it charts the internet's course through infancy to adolescence, delineating the treacherous straits, and rich, deep waters encountered by passengers on its maiden voyage. The rare joy of finding troubling ideas ironed out for ready apprehension was disarming, not least because the book had been published in 1983.
A year before his death in 1984, the political scientist and sociologist Ithiel de Sola Pool wrote Technologies of Freedom. Pool was a prolific scholar, writing major works on business and public policy, political psychology and arms control, as well as attempting a mathematical proof for the "six degrees of separation" hypothesis. By the early eighties, he had long been devoted to the study of communications and technology in political and social life. As founder and chair of MIT's Political Science Department, he was no doubt aware of the development of the TCP/IP protocol, the end-to-end formula that gave birth to the modern internet on New Year's Day the same year he published his final work.
"As computers become the printing presses of the twenty-first century," he writes in his concluding chapter, "other new major media will evolve from what are now but the toys of computer hackers". Quite so. "Videodisks, integrated memories and data bases will serve the functions that books and libraries now serve, while information retrieval systems will serve for what magazines and newspapers do now." Larry Page and Sergey Brin were ten years old when Pool predicted how they would make their first million. "Networks of satellites, optical fibres and radio waves will serve the functions of the present day postal system" Spot on, and the clincher comes at the end: "Speech will not be free if these are not also free".
Over a decade later, Bill Gates would famously ignore the nascent internet when he predicted the rise of a putative interactive network linking increasingly ubiquitous personal computers, in his 1995 work The Road Ahead. But where, for Gates, this network held the same promise as Gutenberg's invention of the movable type printing press, Pool had shown caution: "Repression is in fact most likely not before a technology of liberation comes along, but only afterward, when the powers that be are challenged by the beginnings of change."
Today's norms of free expression were established during the struggle for the freedom of the printing press, a struggle which lasted for centuries. In the seventeenth century the licensing practices of the Queen's Stationers' Company came to be viewed as "prior restraint", whereby a government or other authority restricted speech through permissions systems - triggering protests such as John Milton's famous essay, Areopagitica. In 1765, protests against the Stamp Act, which threatened to impose special taxes on the press, catalysed the American revolution against colonial Britain. Struggles which involve the press in defamation and libel suits continue to this day, and although they are not, as they often once were, brought by government, increasingly powerful global corporations routinely send them to today's press like Christmas cards.
If the internet is indeed a "technology of liberation", then scanning this history gives us a good idea of where Pool's repressions will likely take place. The difference this time is that, because the internet puts the power of the press directly in the hands of the individual citizen, the repression will be felt equally directly.
In the networked communications environment, the most pernicious permissions system is the copyright system. The ease of distribution of copyright-protected content which the internet facilitates among peers has led rightsholders to push for stronger intellectual property legislation. These laws, like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, are framed or exercised in ways which often trample over freedom of expression checks such as fair use. In an infringement-conscious world, academics, artists and journalists must ask permission to quote and criticise works, because legal pressure has blurred the fair use boundaries.
The eighteenth century fight against tax on expression is now mirrored in the debate surrounding network neutrality. Telecommunications and cable companies are lobbying Congress to turn the network of ends into a market, where nodes on the network compete for bandwidth that should remain subject to equal access rights. Meanwhile, armies of forum moderators police what should be conduits for free expression, wary that libellous and other potentially unlawful comments from users with no affiliation to their company could put their business in jeopardy.
"The electronic modes of twentieth century communication", writes Pool, "have lost a large part of the eighteenth and nineteenth century constitutional protections of no prior restraint, no licenses, no special taxes, no regulations and no laws ... thereby breaching a tradition that went back to John Milton." As Pool observes, the battle will be fought on many fronts. From the search engine portals of the online world, through the systems of wires and waves around which the data chugs, to the software that runs on the computers at the edges of the network: "Speech will not be free if these are not also free".
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