Thu, Dec 27, 2012 - Page 9 News List

War rages over control of the Internet

Its birth was heralded as a new age of intellectual freedom, but now the Internet is being captured by big business

By John Naughton  /  The Guardian, LONDON

Illustration: Mountain People

It is all about control. Of course, nobody uses that particular term. The talk is always about “governance” or “regulation,” but really it is about control. Ever since the Internet burst into public consciousness in 1993, the big question has been whether the most disruptive communications technology since print would be captured by the established power structures — nation states and giant corporations — that dominate our world and shape its development. And since then, virtually every newsworthy event in the evolution of the network has really just been another skirmish in the ongoing war to control the Internet.

This year closed with two such skirmishes. In Dubai, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a venerable UN body employing nice-but-politically-dim engineers and run by international bureaucrats of average incompetence, staged the grandly named World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT-12).

The ostensible purpose of the meeting was to do what the ITU routinely does: Update the regulations that harmonize international telecommunications — stuff such as dialing codes, mobile roaming charges and the like.

However, because the ITU is a UN body on which every member country has a vote, some regimes construed the conference as an opportunity for enabling governments to begin getting a grip on controlling the Net.

Their motives for doing so varied: Some countries saw revised IT regulations as a way of enabling them to levy charges on the giant Western companies that currently dominate the Net; others saw them as a chance to control content flowing electronically across their frontiers; and a few saw them as a way of loosening the grip that Western countries (particularly the US) currently has on the organizations that are critical to the technical management of the Internet.

In the event, these various ambitions remained unfulfilled, though some fatuous wording found its way into the final communique of the conference, which concluded in thinly veiled disarray.

The underlying reality was that most Western countries simply refused to buy into the agendas of the authoritarian and/or developing countries who sought to use the conference as a means to the ends that they desired. WCIT-12 was nevertheless a significant event in the evolution of the Internet, because it demonstrated that the war to control the network not only goes on, but is increasing in intensity.

Meanwhile, in another part of the forest, another illuminating skirmish took place. Instagram, a photosharing service that Facebook recently acquired for an unconscionable sum, abruptly changed its terms and conditions. Under the new rules, the hapless users of the service were required to agree that Instagram could use any or all of their photographs for advertising and other purposes, at its sole discretion.

This caused such a storm that the company rowed back — a bit. Most people saw this as just another illustration of the old Internet adage: If the service is free, then you are the product. Others saw it as evidence that Facebook is determined to “monetize” its billion-plus users in any way it can. However one interprets it, the inescapable fact is that it demonstrates the extent to which giant Internet corporations will try to control their users.

And Facebook is a giant corporation in a way that we have not seen before. It has more than a billion customers … er, users. That is just under half of all the world’s Internet population.

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