The more the internet changes, the more it stays the same
Many aspects of an analytical piece about online issues from 1999 could have been written this week
Many other issues remain just as they were in 1999 – unresolved issues of copyright regulation, uncertainty over whether net-based companies are overvalued, the assertion that information may not actually want to be free
Does this sound familiar?
“It is time to admit that we need some good old-fashioned laws and regulations to establish a privacy baseline and make consumers feel secure online.”
Yet it wasn’t written this week but in 1999, the height of the dotcom boom, when the internet was very much a brave new world. The first internet-based companies were coming into being. Overhyped initial public offerings. Early concerns about online piracy. Some growing alarm about how easy it was turning out to be to gather and find information about people online. The beginnings of government censorship. Debates about online pornography and criminality.
These meaty issues led academic and journalist Andrew L Shapiro to write an analytical piece for the American journal Foreign Policy , entitled, rather definitively, “The Internet”. A friend stumbled across it at a used book sale and gave it to me.
Back in 1999, Shapiro, who is currently a fellow at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Centre for Internet and Society, and a contributing editor to The Nation , had just published a book that became one of the first to look closely at the internet as a social and cultural phenomenon, The Control Revolution: How the Internet is Putting Individuals in Charge and Changing the World We Know .
We certainly don’t have the answers yet to many of the issues raised in the piece, set out in this introductory heading: “Information Age gurus claim the Internet will alleviate global poverty, empower individuals, revolutionise commerce, and spread the light of democracy to far corners of the globe – so long as governments keep their hands off.
“Think again. Without careful regulation, digital technology may devastate low-income communities and eliminate personal privacy. And repressive regimes may harness the Internet to increase their power over the people.”
Eliminate the term “Information Age gurus” (doesn’t that take you back?) and that could have been written today.
The difference between then and now is that we have plenty of evidence that could be cited for both sides. And much of that distant future touted by those “Information Age gurus” is ubiquitous now, even blase. For example, how many of us separate “business” and “e-commerce”, as if the latter were some highly differentiated sub-category? It’s all just “business” now.
Democracy versus control
In the piece, Shapiro argues that the net is not inherently democratising: “It should be clear that the Internet may suppress as well as promote democracy.” Well, we sure have evidence there, too – social media used by Arab Spring protesters or Chinese dissidents, set against the use of net technologies by governments to manage and control.
He notes that freedom of speech might or might not flourish – while it gives a voice to the many, perhaps those who control the spaces where talk is disseminated will enable the highest bidder to have the loudest say.
That’s an interesting one. I think the deconstruction of the old-style media business and the rise of independent outlets, blogs and all forms of social media have meant there no longer is a clear “highest bidder” who can outshout the general public.
Shapiro challenges the notion that governments cannot regulate the internet – they can, he says, but the question is more whether lawmakers will do so fairly and effectively. The jury is still out on this one, and I suspect, always will be.
There’s a time-warp feel to some of the privacy discussion, set in the era of government attempts to control access to encryption and an assumption we would all be using personal digital certificates to verify our identities.
The article imagined we were quickly moving to an age of internet TV – but that’s only happening now. It imagined then-formidable Microsoft as a dominant force in the future, now that it had moved into running travel and used-car sales services – but it seems laughable now to think those would be the company’s future, as Microsoft faces the demise of the PC.
But many other issues remain just as they were in 1999 – unresolved issues of copyright regulation, uncertainty over whether net-based companies are overvalued, the assertion that information may not actually want to be free, and the falsely-trumpeted demise of the middlemen.
And of course, the quote I opened with. It could have been written yesterday. Long live 1999.