The Economist points out that the Internet for the past few years has been remarkably open, allowing people to create a website, communicate with anyone in the world, and view information largely free from interference by government or large corporations (http://www.economist.com/node/16941635 ). The open Internet has led to innovations like Wikipedia, companies like Facebook, and even the destabilization of autocratic governments like Egypt.
According to The Economist, three forces now threaten the freedom of the Internet: 1) government 2) large corporations, and 3) network owners.
Totalitarian governments find the open Internet a threat. China, for example, wants to maintain censorship over its citizens and is finding that difficult because of Google and the Internet. Governments in recent years have found increasing effective ways to censor and shut down the Internet, which makes it more difficult for opposition groups to disseminate information and organize. China has recently shut down Gmail in China by making it appear that Gmail was having technical problems. China has also pressured Google to censor its results, and built the so-called Great Wall of China to block access to certain websites. Other totalitarian governments have copied China’s methods.
Many large companies like Apple and Facebook want to create their own islands on the Internet, controlling advertising and content within their own walled gardens.
Net neutrality is also an important concept under attack. For the most part, Internet providers treat every packet of information equally. But many Internet providers would like to create fast and slow lanes, so they can, for example, charge wealthy companies like Facebook more for data access, and then have Facebook’s data move through the Internet faster than a competitor’s site. Creating fast and slow lanes on the Internet would allow larger companies to dominate the Internet because they could afford to pay the fees, whereas smaller websites would be consigned to slower lanes that would draw fewer viewers. Internet providers would have the power to extort money from websites because no profitable site would want to be in the slow lane.
If the world loses access to a free and open Internet, we will have less efficiency in the workplace, less access to information, and we will lose an important force for democratization. It’s not inevitable an open Internet will be lost, but once it’s lost it will be hard to regain.
Staffwriter Robert Bee is a professional librarian and a freelance writer living in New Jersey. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org