Should the Internet be open?

The answer may seem obvious. Surely the great thing about the Internet was that anyone could do anything on it. In fact, this was never true. In democratic countries, what is illegal off-line is equally illegal online. And, in authoritarian nations, there are a whole host of controls that limit free expression.

Nevertheless most of us support and welcome the freest possible Internet consistent with the law. But there are powerful forces at work which are limiting what you can access on the Net and what you see when you go on the Web.

I’ve recently read two books which address this issue from different angles. Both works argue powerfully that our experience of the Net is becoming less open and less inclusive – one through the use of limiting devices and the other through the use of limiting software.

In “The Future Of The Internet And How To Stop It” by Jonathan Zittrain published in 2008 [my review here],  the author is especially concerned at the move away from generative PCs attached to a generative network to a world of sterile appliances tethered to what he sees as a network of control – such as the iPhone and its app store.

In “The Filter Bubble” by Eli Pariser published in 2011 [my review here], the author expresses the fear that personalisation of the web means that we are increasingly accessing only a selected slice of the richness on offer –as a result of practices such as the tailoring of search results on Google and news feeds online.

The reason I raise this subject now is that this week Britain’s four largest Internet service providers agreed to provide their customers with the facility to block access to pornographic material. That’s fine – consumers should be empowered to exercise such a choice, specially if they have young children.

The problem is that 10 Downing Street caused confusion by initially briefing to the media that the ‘no pornography position’ would be the default option.  This would have meant that customers had actively to opt in to access such material, even though this material – however offensive to some – is perfectly legal. The day that consumers have to make an active choice to see legal material on the Web is that day that the open Internet is dead.

Fortunately the Prime Minister’s office had it wrong to the great annoyance of the Internet community [see story here]. The default option is that you can access everything on the Net. If you want the facility to block certain forms of content, your ISP will provide you with the opportunity to have it blocked either at the server level or at the computer level.

But it tells us something that the office of the most powerful politician in the land thought that what would in effect have mean censorship of the Net in the UK was seemingly an acceptable policy position.


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