Here are some scenes from the internet in the last decade of the twentieth century and the first of the 21st, in no particular order.
- The internet versus music and movies. The digitisation of audio-visual content and higher internet bandwidth enables mass downloading of music, movies and television programming entirely outside the legal copyright system. In Australia, much of it is driven by the FTA television networks’ refusal to screen foreign programs for many months after they’ve screened in the US. The response of copyright owners and media companies is to prosecute individuals, websites or companies that download illegally, or facilitate downloading, and convince governments to impose new, often draconian, copyright laws. Their efforts are futile. About 25% of global internet traffic is estimated to be file sharing, nearly all of it illegal.
- The internet versus lawyers. Lawyers in jurisdictions across the world become increasingly concerned about jurors using the internet to find out about cases. Judges take to threatening jurors with contempt of court if they breach agreements about using the internet. In 2008, a Victorian judge demands the suppression of an episode of Underbelly. As soon as the banned episode is broadcast elsewhere, it is available online and downloaded thousands of times. In 2009, a judge orders Australian websites to take over 1500 articles offline about an individual on the basis that they will prejudice a trial jury. The material remains easily accessible even after removal by the sites in question.
- The internet versus gambling opponents. Moral panic over gambling and pressure from casinos prompts the Australian Government to ban online gambling in 2001. According to the Productivity Commission, the ban fails to prevent continued growth in online gambling at rates similar to other countries. The ban ensures Australians’ money goes to poorly-regulated foreign sites and not safer local sites and Australian taxpayers.
- The internet versus government secrecy. The website Cryptome began publishing classified and confidential government information in 1996. Similar sites like Cartome, Eyeball Series and Cryptome CN also offer other types of information governments want suppressed. Cryptome’s founders claim FBI harassment, the site has its server capacity removed and companies like PayPal refuse to enable contributions to the site. But as WikiLeaks will demonstrate, the harassment appears to have no noticeable impact on the release of material.
- The internet versus transnationals. In October 2009, the transnational energy company Trafigura, which has successfully used the UK courts to suppress reporting of evidence it released toxic waste in Côte d’Ivoire, obtains a “superinjunction” against the Guardian on the same issue. But “Trafigura” becomes a trending topic on Twitter, and a number of websites and WikiLeaks publish material on the case. The company abandons its attempts to suppress efforts to expose it.
- The internet versus journalists. Some Australian p olitical journalists, angry at criticism of their coverage of the 2010 election, lash out at “parasites”, “free riders” and “armchair critics” online. “Just let the professionals do their job” demands one on Twitter. But the editor of The Australian goes further. Angry that online critics are routinely deriding the paper’s partisanship and anti-science stance on climate change, he threatens to sue an academic over tweets made about a presentation at a journalism conference — though not the presenter herself, a former journalist at his own paper — and boasts about bringing his lawyers into the matter. His Media Editor then threatens to report another academic to police over a Twitter comment. The result is extensive coverage of the original presentation here and overseas.
- The internet versus the Australian Government. In response to WikiLeaks releasing US diplomatic cables, the Australian Prime Minister labels the act “illegal” and her Attorney-General talks about measures to prevent the release of national security material in the media. He writes to mainstream media editors with the goal of developing a protocol to do so. Later, Australian police advise that WikiLeaks has not broken any Australian laws, and the Prime Minister is forced to carefully parse her claim about illegality.
- The internet versus Big Retail. Australia’s major retailers, used to earning oligopoly profits, are unhappy Australians are using the internet to shop online at overseas sites. They demand the Government take “decisive action” in the form of higher taxes to deter consumers and protect their profits.
The common theme across these examples is that the gatekeepers and the privileged intermediaries of late twentieth century Western economies — politicians, lawyers, the mainstream media, large corporations — are threatened by the connectedness that the internet enables.
Humans are, to nick a phrase from David Attenborough, compulsive communicators. The urge to converse, debate, joke, fight, trade, play and form relationships with each other is hard-wired into us. And the internet dramatically expands the community within which we can do that, from one constrained by geography to one only constrained by technology.
And it directly undermines the power of those who want to regulate that interaction, or profit from it. Governments that want to police it. The media that profits by connecting us. The corporations that rely on consumers knowing less than they do. The courts that regard jurors as easily-swayed fools who need to be treated like mushrooms. All now confront interconnectedness on a scale far greater than ever seen before, with far fewer opportunities to regulate or exploit it.
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But the gatekeepers and intermediaries are unwilling to let their power go easily, even as it slips away from them. And they reflexively resort to litigation, regulation and prohibition to maintain their power.