Editor’s note: this post was originally published on another blog in 2011. In the wake of the “net neutrality” decision, it seems relevant once more. It has been reposted here with minor modifications.
Once upon a time, in the Good Ol’ Days we refer to as the 1990s, this newfangled thing called The Internet made a jump from an obscure tool that only academics and computer geeks even knew about to a mainstream tool that everybody was using. The world was full of promise. The Internet would set us free! Information wants to be free! You can’t control the ‘Net! Finally we have an end to all censorship! Power to the little man!
I got caught up in it pretty easily. After all, I was young. I had Internet access in high school, a few years before it was really known to the public. It was just the right age to get caught up in all the libertarian utopian ideas of how great the Internet would be.
I’ve spent my whole adult life working with computers, and in recent years I’ve come to an entirely different conclusion. In the long run, the Internet will lessen our freedoms, not increase them. Yes, the Internet of yesteryear was a wild, wild west where anything went. The Internet of today is already being tamed, and the Internet of tomorrow is going to trend toward fascist land. Here are some things we can expect in the future of the Internet, many of which are already here or coming:
- DRM will fundamentally limit our usage of any and all media. “Fair use” exceptions that we take for granted today will be technologically unavailable. Sure, a handful of people will be able to crack the system and get past it. 99.9% of the people won’t know how or care to learn. Increasingly harsh laws (worldwide) will be in place to enable this and to crack down on the folks who try to circumvent it – laws pushed by gigantic Mega Corporations. This is already starting to happen thanks to DMCA, and there’s an ongoing push for even more draconian world wide copyright treaties.
- Our digital devices will increasingly be used to track everything we do. This is already happening to a huge degree. Use web mail? It’s free and convenient, and I use it myself. But your mail’s being tracked. Google’s already tracking it digitally so that they know what ads to send you. Other companies are doing similar things with it. That handy dandy GPS in your phone? It can be used to track you, too. Those internet sites your browsing that helpfully remember your information? They’re using web “cookies” to track what you do.
- Watch out for free speech limitations. We’ve already seen it with sites being threatened with de-hosting or more for “hate speech.” The DMCA requires sites to take down content on the mere accusation of copyright violation, and we’ve watched that happen as well.
- Think Wikileaks is a bastion of freedom that proves the Internet can’t be tamed? Think again. Wikileaks will, over the next 5 years, be the driving force that gives governments around the world the excuse they need to tighten down the reigns on the Internet. Remember this, kids: there is nothing fundamental about the Internet that makes it immune from censorship or government control. It exists this way today because it was designed and built that way. Designs and construction can change. If the laws force them to, the big companies that control most of the Internet can and will change those protocols that make the Internet so hard to control. Many of those companies will do so gladly, because it will improve their bottom line. Some of those companies will even lobby governments in favor of these kinds of regulation.
- Very little that you do online ever goes away, and most of what you post – the content that you create – is no longer yours from the minute you post it online. Major web sites like Facebook, Twitter, and WordPress.com (who hosts this blog) rarely delete anything, even if you “delete” content. They can’t. Federal law requires them to keep that content around for a minimum of 30 days so that the police can subpoena it for an investigation. Some sites will actually delete content after 30 days. More and more are moving to policies of never deleting anything. Hard drives are cheap. Having to tell the government that you don’t have what they want might kill your business.
The world is changing, my friends. And not to the digital utopia we all thought it would be. The only reason it hasn’t happened already is that the Internet originated in the United States, a country that still has some serious constitutional protections for free speech, free assembly, free press, and freedom from search and seizure. Other countries have been trying for a decade to remove Internet control from the US government’s hands. And how long will the US government and its people retain the will to maintain these freedoms? If history is any judge the answer is certainly, “not forever.” Indeed, we’ve already witnessed the willingness of our fellow citizens to give up all kinds of freedoms in the name of “security,” “health care,” and “safety” – nevermind the almighty “profit.”
My vision of the future is not inevitable. It can be stopped. But only if the people have the will to stop it. I’m no longer convinced they do.