The silent spring of the internet: cyberspace needs its stewards

Maybe it’s because of the events leading up to the Digital Economy Bill becoming an Act here in the UK. It’s been a bit like Chinese water torture for many months; then, more recently, as the BPI saw their chance to corrupt parliamentary process and took it, it felt more like being waterboarded. I have had it up to here with people who think the internet was built to become a distribution mechanism for Hollywood and Universal Music and David Geffen.

My first objection to the Digital Economy Bill was to do with technical difficulties in proving who downloaded what: the complexity and inefficacy of technical solutions, the guaranteed waste of time and money, the likelihood of erroneous accusations, the unwanted consequence of driving dissent underground. My second objection was to do with the nature of the punishment, completely out of proportion with the crime, possibly illegal in human rights terms and with definite and unnecessary collateral damage on non-participants. My third objection was to do with the manipulation of data, the extrapolation of questionable samples into WMD-like justifications, but then I have to accept that statistics and lies have been kissing cousins for many years now. My fourth objection was to to with the corruption of process, the way the Bill was timed, how debate was avoided, how all parties achieved nothing but grubbiness in the process. And my final objection was to do with the people involved, the vestedness of their interests.

Many of us who opposed the Bill vehemently were quite happy to see legitimate and proportionate action taken against thieves. Legitimate. Proportionate. Against thieves. Sadly the Bill had nothing to do with words like those.

The industry lobby did their work well. Now we have to get used to a world where filesharing and downloading are both wrongly equated with theft, where damaging action can be taken on mere suspicion, and where dictatorial powers may be assumed almost at will. All to try and hold on to a dying business model. There will be consequences, unexpected consequences. [For those of you who are interested, I wrote about the data here, here and here, about the Bill’s inappropriateness of punishment here, about the unreasonable bias here and about the core issues related to the Bill here and here. And if you want to understand how retrograde all this is, read this. ]

What’s done is done. And we will live with the consequences. And learn from them, and maybe even change as a result. The Digital Economy Bill was a skirmish, maybe even a battle, but it wasn’t the war.

The War is about the internet: what it is, what it means, what it stands for, how it works, who it works for, and many such related questions.

It’s been an interesting week or so in this context.

Apple and their SDK terms; Twitter and Tweetie; the Appeals Court and their ruling on the FCC and Net Neutrality; Microsoft and Kin. European telcos catching the Ed Whitacre disease. All this in an environment that has Google and ChinaAndroid, the Droid and the Nexus One, all apparently living in perfect harmony.

By the pricking of my thumbs…..

I think we’re heading towards the cyber equivalent of what Rachel Carson saw and understood when she wrote Silent Spring nearly 50 years ago, having established her reputation with The Sea Around Us.

  • The internet is a sea around us, and we’re polluting it. We’re polluting it for short-term gain, we’re polluting it without really understanding the ecosystem that has evolved around it, the creatures that live in it.
  • The internet is an ocean around us, still somewhat unknown, still being mapped. It is capable of nourishing and sustaining us, capable of supporting and encouraging trade and commerce, capable of giving us incredible enjoyment, helping keep us clean and healthy.
  • The internet is all the rivers around us, capable of being dammed and isolated, capable of being corrupted and polluted at industrial levels, capable of being poisoned, capable of drying up, capable of killing us.

[And yes, the internet is capable of supporting piracy as well. But let us first understand what extreme nonrival goods are, how copyright infringements are different from theft. If Labour use unlicensed images in a campaign advertisement, is it called theft? When John Fogarty can be accused of plagiarising himself, is it called theft?]

We will soon begin to understand what the internet is. What identity means in an internet context. What intellectual property means in an internet context. The establishment of a Web Science Trust may well accelerate all this.

When we do learn about all this, we will begin to enact laws. Laws that protect the internet. Laws that make criminals of people who damage the internet.

Rachel Carson may have helped us with an understanding of what it is to become stewards of physical space. We now need to become stewards of cyberspace as well.

In that sense, the Digital Economy Bill may actually be a godsend, bringing together disparate groups of people with common, passionately held aims.

8 thoughts on “The silent spring of the internet: cyberspace needs its stewards”

  1. The bill will drive a lot of practices underground. Security technologies such as VPN will make it difficult to track and we will gradually lose the ability to know what is happening on the Internet and how people are really using it.

  2. Traditional institutions still have so much power, but it’s all just momentum. They’re not gaining any new power, and as the old generations die off and the new replace them, more and more power will be shifted away. This might be a war we have to win by attrition, but win it we will.

  3. There is a need for new business models, not draconian laws that intend to kill the very essence of the Internet. Farmville comes to mind. 99% of its users do not pay. But I never heard Mark Pincus complain.

  4. Wikiquote tells me it was actually Wendell Phillips who said “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty”. And there was me thinking it was Col. Nathan Jessep.

    Anyway, it seemed apposite.

Let me know what you think