14 Jul 2016

Who's ruining the internet?

From Nine To Noon, 10:08 am on 14 July 2016

World-famous digital activist Cory Doctorow wants to see big changes in how we use the internet.

Cory Doctorow

Cory Doctorow Photo: Jonathan Worth/Creative Commons

When the World Wide Web was still in its infancy it was driven, in part, by egalitarian ideals that it could be a place where everyone's voice could be heard - eliminating the power of gatekeepers to decide what information the public could access.

But according to Doctorow, who is a science fiction author and co-editor of the website Boing Boing, things have changed dramatically.

He says that while the intentions of those who were “inspired by and excited about the possibilities for directly connecting people with one another” were to keep the internet open, constant compromises meant that over time it became less egalitarian, a less competitive, and eventually less free.

“You know [that] kind of self-delusion that many of us make along the way in terms of our own morals and ethics.

“You can see it playing out until we arrive at a place where people who should have known better, have millimetre-by-millimetre, put themselves into a position where they effectively have digital monopolies.”

Websites like Facebook (which Doctorow describes as a “massive face-hugging vampire squid that is devouring the web”), Flickr and YouTube make their billions sweeping up huge amounts of original content developed by their users and selling advertising around it - and selling users personal information too.

And increasingly, those companies are using algorithms to decide what content users see, bringing accusations of censorship and psychological manipulation.

Meanwhile, governments have also passed legislation extending the powers of copyright on the web and enabling mass surveillance of online activities, including our government in New Zealand.

Doctorow says that one of the “most shameful incidents in internet policy” is Section 92A of the Copyright (New Technologies) Amendment Act here in New Zealand.

“This bill was rammed through and considered at the time to be so disproportionate that people rose up there were street demonstrations, there were mass movements against it and eventually your government rescinded the law.”

He says the fact that it was eventually reattached shows that “someone was exerting huge influence over your democratic process” in terms of internet policy.

“In the wake the Christchurch earthquake you had a parliamentarian who refused allow the emergency legislation to dig out of the rubble to go through unless your Bill 92A was reattached and made back into law.”

Doctorow talks to Kathryn Ryan about current issues with the internet and how he thinks it should change.