Thursday, July 13, 2006

The Golden Age of the Internet

How many people realize that we're living in a golden age, the Golden Age of the Internet? It won't last; golden ages never do. Some of it will remain, but there's evidence that much of it is headed for the trash heap of history.

Radio days. The golden age of radio lasted from about 1930 to 1950. It was nothing like radio today. Money was thrown at it. Thousands of great dramas and variety shows were made. Huge news organizations were built. Today, radio consists of right­wingers ranting about liberals, psychologists analyzing moaners-and-groaners, and mediocre music from CDs. We do get all-news stations with erroneous traffic reports, and public broadcasting stations with thoughtful shows on fascinating topics like the art of Gebel Barkel from the first millennium BC.

Every new technology that widely affects society has a golden age, and we give things a lot of slack. Porn on the Net symbolizes this leeway. But so do podcasting, blogging, free video servers, chat rooms, P2P, free e-mail, and other flourishing services.

A proprietary, closed Net is coming. A golden age ends either when something new comes along (as with radio's golden age, killed by the advent of TV), the government gets involved, or entropy sets in—usually a mix of these elements. In the case of the Internet, we are already seeing a combination of government, carrier, and business interactions that will eventually turn the Net into a restricted and somewhat proprietary network, with much of its content restricted or blocked. Only a diligent few will actually have access to the restricted data, and in some parts of the world even trying to view the restricted information on the Net will be a crime.

It's already a crime to post intellectual discussions about copy-protection schemes that are protected by the DMCA. If the American public tolerates that sort of onerous restriction, then it will tolerate anything.—Continue reading...

Filtering and blacklists now common. Most U.S. government agencies now use filtering mechanisms to keep their own computers from accessing blacklisted Web sites. Third parties maintain these blacklists, and they put whatever they want on the lists. For example, my blog was blacklisted for a while, with no explanation.

Most companies go much further and carefully monitor all network traffic. They can then pinpoint the use of streaming media and other verboten uses of corporate computers and simply block such usages and blacklist the sites involved.

Even e-mail is lost in the shuffle. The New York Times has a system in place that prevents certain press releases from getting to the reporters.

Blame spam and porn. Spam, porn, and other forms of questionable content are the reasons for filtering and blacklisting. But increasingly, content that mentions birth control or evolution is blocked. Nazi memorabilia sales and hate sites are also banned. It is folly to think that any government, no matter how progressive, won't be tempted to choke off certain content of which it does not approve.

This sort of intervention becomes ever easier with the consolidation of the Internet. It's all headed to AT&T and Comcast. AT&T has already sold the public down the river by turning over phone records to the government without blinking an eye. Ask it to filter Google results? No problemo!

Is there anything the public can do about this? Yes—enjoy the Golden Age, while you can.