Anarchy or Oligarchy? Finding a Reasonable Middle Ground on Internet Policy
“Global electronic, unmediated communication, often masked by encryption, has collapsed time and space. Global communication and organization by non-elites is stimulating a reaction by elites. Powerful institutions cannot ignore the threats that open, anarchistic systems seem to present. Thus reactions to the emergence of peer-to-peer systems—though largely unjustified—have been fierce.” –Siva Vaidhyanathan, The Anarchist in the Library.
Over the last two decades, the internet has changed many things about modern society as it quickly became one of the most salient aspects of life and culture. It has opened up a world of possibilities for seemingly anything and everything. People are now able to learn as much as they’d like without the expensive cost of college tuition. Open source projects and funding are deteriorating business models of the past as they usher us into newer, more open forms of economy and money-making. However, the most beautiful aspect of the internet was, and is, its openness and simplicity. People are free to utilize the internet as they please in order to accomplish any goal they set for themselves; or, at least they were. As the internet began to prosper and peer-to-peer systems opened up a whole new world and culture of sharing, certain businesses began to collapse. For the first time, the virtual world crossed over and touched the real world, and some of the cultural elite became fearful of the internet’s power to cross traditional boundaries.
Since then, the fate of an open internet has come into question as proponents of strong copyright laws clashed with those in favor of a free and open internet for all. In short, the internet only has two foreseeable outcomes: anarchy or oligarchy. On January 14, 2014, a federal appeals court ruled that internet service providers (ISP’s), like Verizon, are free to make deals with services like Netflix or Amazon, allowing those companies to pay to stream their products to online viewers through a faster, express lane on the web. Thus, it seems as though the internet is headed in the direction of oligarchy. What does this mean for the lowly end user? Well, it may mean nothing. Life may go on as is, with ISPs continuing to provide internet services. However, if there is a means for big corporations to make more money, rest assured they will do it in order to generate as much revenue as possible. It is possible that users will have to pay extra fees for using online streaming services. Or, perhaps they will censor certain information from being streamed along the web if enough money is thrown in their face by other corporations.
Sadly, this is a model that is rapidly becoming more prevalent on the internet. Despite citizens repeatedly telling lawmakers to leave the internet alone, their thoughts and warnings are going unheard, their petitions unnoticed. Lawmakers are constantly seeking quick solutions to problems that the anarchic nature of the internet has fostered; however, they tend to employ quick fixes that they think will stem the flow of information. As we’ve seen in the past, this is a terrible way to tackle a complex problem (*cough, cough* SOPA). In return, they are met with fierce opposition; people don’t like to be told that they are losing their freedoms. Yet, to the cultural elites, some freedoms can be terrifying.
(Aaron Swartz Committed Suicide 1/11/13 During his prosecution for allegedly breaking into JSTOR with the intention of releasing the academic journals on the internet. He was one of the biggest faces fighting against the ongoing clampdown of internet freedom in Government).
We are currently locked in an information arms race. Freedoms will be lost or gained depending on the outcome of the war raging on the internet. Granted, some freedoms should be curbed. Otherwise you end up with situations like the Deep Web. However, if too many freedoms are curtailed, and all of internet traffic is dominated by a handful of internet service providers, the internet will lose the open, sharing nature that it holds now. It will be subject to the whims of big corporations telling people where to go, what to watch, what music to listen to, and what to study. The only solution is to find a middle ground. However, if both sides are fighting for the extremes – to stop file sharing and limit internet traffic, or to leave the internet untouched and prospering with questionable links and content – how is it possible to find a middle ground? Perhaps it’s time to take matters into our own hands, inspire a cultural discourse about the future of the internet, and maybe even take a vote? If we find a reasonable middle ground, all of this nonsense can be avoided. Stay tuned, we haven’t heard the last of this fight yet. It’s only just beginning.