The man who invented the World Wide Web 25 years ago, Tim Berners-Lee, says the internet is under siege by corporate and government interests threatened by its open nature. Meanwhile older media, threatened by an ascendant internet, either stand by and distract or actively cheer on the erosion of liberty online.
“The power to abuse the open internet has become so tempting both for government and big companies,” Berners-Lee said in London on Monday. “If a company can control your access to the internet, if they can control which websites they go to, then they have tremendous control over your life. If they can spy on what you’re doing they can understand a huge amount about you and similarly if a Government can block you going to, for example, the opposition’s political pages, then they can give you a blinkered view of reality to keep themselves in power and if they can spy on you and find out the people who are really serious dissidents then they can round you up and put you in jail.”
The creator of the Web thinks the problem is serious enough that he’s pushing for a so-called Magna Carta to enshrine the internet’s independence and users’ privacy. And he says that the only resistance comes from “lawyers in the big companies who realize that if they can make a play to take over control, that it will be so valuable that it’s worth them spending a lot of money trying to tweak the laws to allow loopholes which will allow them to start abusing people.” A look at the abuse that’s already committed by these entities is enough to make one shudder at the thought of them exercising full control of the internet.
Russia has been particularly active when it comes to encroaching on online freedoms. A vaguely written law enacted this summer requires anyone with an audience of more than 3,000 daily readers to register with the government, which ranked 148th out of 180 countries on the 2014 Press Freedom Index. That has to be unsettling to anybody who’s critical of Vladimir Putin, especially given that since 1992, Russia has been the fifth-deadliest country in the world for journalists on the job. Its total of 56 journalists killed in the line of duty is the highest of any country not at war other than the Philippines (76) and Algeria (60), and among war-torn countries it trails only Iraq (164) and Syria (63).
Besides leaning on anybody with a remotely sizable audience, the Russian government is also tightening its grip on social networks, requiring Google, Twitter, and Facebook to register with the government or face being blocked in the nation of more than 142 million. Throw in new proposed limits on foreign ownership of media outlets, and the political climate in Russia is growing ever more repressive.
Last week, President Barack Obama last said that Russia’s moves against internet freedom and foreign media ownership were “vilifying legitimate dissent as subversive.” The United States is far from a shining beacon of press freedom, though. As president, Obama has overseen more prosecutions of journalists under the Espionage Act of 1917 than all previous U.S. presidents combined, not to mention the continuation and expansion of Bush-era intelligence policies that tasked the National Security Agency with spying on the entire internet. All that bad acting dropped the U.S. to 46th in the world on the 2014 Press Freedom Index, down from 32nd the year before.
But perhaps worst of all when it comes to First Amendment freedoms in the United States is what an influential segment of its media does with them. Thanks to media consolidation, the major news networks are owned by large corporations that are often lobbying the government over mergers and other regulatory matters, giving them an incentive to avoid questioning policy too much. Rather than serving as a civic check on the government, they present the news as entertainment and carve out market positions by appealing to ideology. MSNBC goes for liberals, FOX News goes for conservatives, and CNN vacillates wildly, going for whoever’s still willing to watch it at any given moment. The only outlet that challenges basic assumptions about American government policy is RT, but they’re impossible to take seriously because they’re funded by that famous friend of the Russian press, Vladimir Putin.
The one thing none of the American networks ever go for is taking a truly adversarial stance with the government over policy. Any disagreements they may express with what the government does depend entirely on who’s running the show in Washington at the moment. And when it comes to online freedoms, the same companies that own the major outlets that people turn to for their news are frequently the ones that profit the most from tightening their grip on the net, leading to radio silence at best and outright hostility at worst. A constantly revolving mix of celebrity news, reality television, endless coverage of never-ending tech product cycles, and manufactured moral outrage is served up instead. Meanwhile journalists are dying by the dozens in other countries where the governments already use the internet to crack down on dissent.
The free spread of information has never been more important than it is today. We’re at a unique point in the history of communications technology right now, one where the internet is rapidly evolving and how that evolution is handled will determine the course of free expression in the coming decades. The internet, once a self-defining, disruptive medium embraced mostly by subcultures, is in danger being diverted into a role as the future distribution platform for all corporate media. It’s also responsible for a growing chunk of the world’s commerce and most of its espionage, much of the latter conducted by the United States upon its own citizens and the rest of the world. It’s enough to make you hope that Tim Berners-Lee can find a way to get his Magna Carta passed, even if you can’t figure out for yourself how it could ever be effective.