The internet as we know it hasn’t been around all that long. By the late 1990s – early 2000s, most moderate-income families had a home computer. By the mid to late 2000s, most people had access to relatively fast internet. Now, everyone has access to blazing fast internet that they can hold in the palm of their hand.
It’s no mistake that the internet is often described as a place rather than an object. The interconnectivity and access of web pages make them more destinations than applications. There had never been anything like the World Wide Web before, which made policing it a very complicated matter.
For most of its existence, the internet has been a new frontier of near lawlessness and laissez-faire. However, the governments of the world are finally starting to catch up, and it may not be for the better.
The potential attack on internet freedom has thus far been two-pronged: Access and Content
Ironically, it was actually a regulation that was protecting access to the internet…until recently. Over that past few years, you’ve probably heard the term net neutrality thrown around a few times. The simplest version of what it means is that internet service providers were forced to provide equal access to everyone. Net neutrality is now gone.
The fear is that ISPs will provide superior access to those willing to pay them more and inferior access to those who are not. This would take the form of drastically slower buffering and loading times if the page loads at all. The arguments raised are currently about things like Hulu and Netflix, the other side of the coin is news organizations and access to information. The ultimate fear being a curated internet where people only know what someone wants them to know. It’s not as far-fetched as it sounds. It already exists in several countries around the world; most notably China.
That said, we are still a ways away from that, and some members of the government are fighting to return and protect net neutrality. Time will tell.
If you don’t follow the parliamentary politics of the European Union, I can’t exactly blame you. All the same, you may have heard the term Article 13 in the news lately. It refers to a provision in a proposed EU copyright directive. I won’t bore you with the details. The main point is that websites with user-generated content will have to actively police their site for any copyright infringement.
That may not seem unreasonable, copyright law is copyright law. However, copyright law on the internet has always been a bit murky. I’m not talking about illegally downloading and sharing movies or music (Don’t, by the way). I’m talking about putting a picture you thought was funny on a friend’s social media page. If it is copyrighted material, the website could be fined for not taking it down. These fines would be particularly damaging to new start-up websites who have neither the resources to properly police their site 24-7 nor the money to pay the fines they would accrue.
Some may be wondering, “That’s the EU, what does that have to do with me?” (For convenience purposes, this straw-man is American) The interconnectivity of the internet makes it “have to do” with everyone. It gives websites the awful choice of blocking content to EU countries, cutting out a huge market, or complying with the regulations, regardless of country of origin.
Article 11 of the same law makes websites pay news organizations to host substantial parts of their content, but doesn’t clearly define what that means. Should you have to pay CNN for linking to CNN? The whole thing is a mess. As more attention is brought to the subject, more and more people are realizing that it is a mess. In an attempt to placate news organizations, they’ve only succeeded in galvanizing everyone else.
The solution isn’t obvious. YouTube spent millions on a content identification system and has had one problem after another ever since it went live.
Is it an issue of fair use? Or is it an issue of censorship?