Who controls the Internet and why it matters to you

The global fight for the control of the Internet

Michael Fitzgerald By Michael Fitzgerald

It always sounds absurd when people fret about the freewheeling Internet becoming controlled by governments or companies, as if the Internet were a mere printing press or other conduit that could be subjected to some kind of centralized switchboard. The Internet exists to allow information to be distributed, and while there isn’t one gatekeeper there are certainly many who are trying to control it. Conflicts are playing out across the globe.

The cyber war is upon us. A U.S. Air Force network operations center. (Reuters/Rick Wilking)

We’ll start in Australia. There, we see a familiar script: Hollywood gets grumpy about how easy it is to pirate content on the Internet. It sues an internet service provider, in this case a company called iiNet. Three years go by, during which Hollywood loses, appeals, and Australians understandably get distracted from court proceedings by things like the latest online videos.  As the Australian Financial Review puts it,

“From a technology perspective, the means to pirate TV and movie content has become so simple that the television companies face an almost impossible and constant battle.”

The AFR says it really doesn’t matter what the judge will decide on Friday – this genie is out and sitting on the couch, watching whatever she feels like, copyright violation or no. So pass the pretzels, okay?

Not so fast, genie. In the Netherlands, the Dutch entertainment industry trade association BREIN got a court order forcing the effective shut down of a Pirate Bay proxy run by the Dutch Pirate Party. Pirate Bay  is a Swedish site that lets Internet users share digital content.

The Dutch Pirate Party says it will go to court with BREIN over this, in an effort to convince a judge that giving “BREIN one blocking instrument causes them to stretch it in unjust ways to stifle free speech and the free flow of information.” The head of the party was practically sputtering with anger to TorrentFreak, saying in part that “A private lobbying organization should not be allowed to be the censor of the Dutch internet.” Of course, it is a private group that got the weight of a government behind it.

Wait a minute. Aren’t governments — and we channel our inner corporate titan here —   a kind of bumbling bureaucratic buffoonery that exist primarily to (inefficiently) siphon funds from hard-working people and (inefficiently) redistribute them to lazy people? Perhaps not in Canada, where the government-backed Canadian Broadcasting Corp. has started a free music site. Eight Canadian media companies fear this government juggernaut’s ability to out-innovate them and have sued to make it stop.

Over in the UK, the Guardian has embarked on a seven-day series laying out “The Battle for the Internet” (really — we think the writers had to wear cyberhelmets, even). The raging conflicts include things like China’s efforts to quash microbloggers, and cyber wargames conducted by the U.S. and China. It also looks at the failed 1990s meme of “walled gardens” (remember AOL/TimeWarner?), which is seeing a fuller expression in Facebook and the Apple app store, which it views as Internet censors. One of the pieces is a much-discussed interview with Google co-founder Sergey Brin, in which a man whose company dominates online advertising frets about the rise of Facebook. He has other concerns about Internet openness, as well, but says in part that Google could not exist had it not been formed prior to the rise of the Facebook and Apple.

Facebook and Apple, of course, are not governments. They are private companies, and driven by rules of the market as much as ideas of civil society. Does it matter to you if a private company controls some large portion of the Internet, or walls it off? Should their ability to keep control of content make us happy? Or should we be able to see whatever we want, without worry about copyright?

  • Latif

    Great article, thanks, Michael! I wanted to point out that the “internet” is also becoming increasingly difficult to define and therefore it will be increasingly difficult to track content posted — especially when it’s in a form other than text.

    For example, I helped build a project called Swara at MIT. It’s an ‘audio newspaper’, and allows rural villages to maintain their own playlist of audio articles posted by members of the community. The great thing is that it’s accessible via the internet or a simple phone — just by dialing a local number. Audio is much harder to track than text, which can easily be scraped and keyword-searched and worked well for our project since many villagers didn’t have smart phones or weren’t literate. Here’s a link with more information: http://www.icfj.org/news/india%E2%80%99s-tribal-citizens-use-new-cell-phone-network-produce-local-news

    And a link to the project: http://cgnetswara.org/

    Latitude news is doing a great job so far — keep up the great work!