Monday, June 04, 2007

Safekeeping Cyberspace

[Part Six in a series: Reading Benkler's Wealth of Networks.]

We've seen that the Internet, as a more open and accessible public media space, creates new opportunities and advances important democratic values. It makes the broader culture more transparent and responsive, it empowers citizens to express themselves creatively, and it enhances autonomy by broadening the range of possibilities open for us to choose between. The end result – if this opportunity is recognized – is a more ‘conversational’ public sphere, whereby citizens can deliberate together in an ongoing dialogue, at least to a greater extent than was possible under the mass-mediated industrial model that dominated the twentieth century.

These benefits are not inevitable, however. Private control over its physical infrastructure could threaten the democratic potential of the Internet, for example:
Clearly, when in 2005 Telus, Canada’s second largest telecommunications company, blocked access to the Web site of the Telecommunications Workers Union for all of its own clients and those of internet service providers that relied on its backbone network, it was not seeking to improve service for those customers’ benefit, but to control a conversation in which it had an intense interest. (p.398)

Possible solutions to this might involve public provision of broadband and/or open wireless network infrastructure, as several U.S. municipalities are currently investigating (pp.406-7). Public provision of this essential infrastructure would also help overcome the ‘digital divide’ that excludes non-connected residents from the full benefits of networked citizenship.

Other threats include excessive IP laws (e.g. copyright extensions) that diminish the public domain and crowd out peer-production in favour of incumbent commercial industries. Further, hardware "fixes" -- i.e. the crippling of information devices, so as to preclude the very possibility of copyright infringement -- inevitably overreach, equally obstructing "fair use" and other perfectly legitimate actions.

Past posts in this series have highlighted the Internet's incredible potential, based on the distinctive ease with which people can use it to produce and share information. If we don't want to see its value squandered, we need to be wary of lobbyists and legislators who would undermine these distinctive qualities of the Internet (thus precluding its distinctive benefits). So, this is an important political issue for citizens to be aware of. In light of the democratic potential of the Internet, it would be an awful shame for our laws to convert it into just another commercial medium.


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