FEATURE: The Internet, Censored

Image source: neweurasia.net

Written by Yong Kim

As more and more countries implement internet censorship, will the U.S. ever censor the Internet? It’s definitely already being monitored, by the government and private companies. Censorship seems to be the next logical step in the evolution of the Internet. Because of our amendment rights (as well the sheer volume of hungry lawyers in the U.S.), our government could never truly censor the Internet as extremely or overtly as China does presently. But it doesn’t mean it won’t ever be done. Here in the U.S., corporations will do it voluntarily in the pursuit of delivering better products and services. Much like cable TV offers more than broadcast TV, exclusive pay Internet networks will have the most desirable products and guarantee zero viruses, spyware, popups, etc., perhaps even be free of advertisements in some parts of their networks, much like certain cable channels–e.g. HBO and Showtime–don’t interrupt their programming with commercials while other still do–e.g. TNT and TBS. And we, the public, will allow this form of censorship in exchange for entertainment and convenience. As a result, “free” Internet could easily go the way of AM radio. Though there is a variety of content available on AM radio today (some of it with devoted fans), it has become a medium with a limited audience (for example, people listening to a sporting event when a TV is not available, like while driving).

Internet censorship by corporations won’t be as obvious as it would be if the government were to do it (although my inner-conspiracy theorist suspects the government will still influence content). But I argue that it will be more sinister. These companies won’t tell sites that they can’t say or do something. They won’t ban anything or restrict their subscribers in any way. They just won’t offer “undesirable” content on their networks–basically, any content they fear may be offensive or conflicts with their agenda. With numerous companies each offering their own version of a pay Internet network (henceforth PIN), and we, their subscribers, voluntarily sequestering ourselves within it, how would we fight this type of censorship? It’s simple to fight censorship–though not necessarily easy–when the controlling power is centralized and the oppression is obvious. But when the power is scattered, it becomes like the carnival game Whack-A-Mole. The game of fighting censorship that’s disseminated into a structure without one controlling source and provides desirable content in return is as fruitless as fighting superstores like Wal-Mart, Target, etc. We all know local businesses are hurt by them (we all are in the bigger scheme); but those superstores are so cheap and convenient that we can’t help but be drawn to them at some point. And when one goes out of business (which is rare to begin with), another one pops up to take its place. In such a structure, we are part of the problem because we feed that power structure; and how do we fight ourselves without destroying each other?

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So how will all this censorship take place? Picture a robust pay version of Yahoo!, but with much more content, loaded with entertainment sites that give you access to any movie and TV show you want (much in the way Netflix allows its subscribers to stream movies and TV shows), shows produced specifically for Internet television, news channels, social media, social networks, etc., all in a nice neat package (for a subscription fee, of course).  Right now we go to Facebook for social networking; NY Times (or LA Times, Washington Post, Yahoo!, etc.) for news and weather; Hulu.com for entertainment content; YouTube for more videos (albeit a different variety); the television set for its content, like sports, shows, movies, news, etc.; the tablet, smart phone or computer for email and Internet needs; stream movies and TV shows through Netflix; Google for Internet searches; etc., etc., etc. Imagine having all of that in one neat package, on one device. Unlike cable TV, you won’t need a DVR to record anything or check a programming schedule to see what’s playing or when. Simply log on (of course, cookies will keep you logged on), click on the programming you wish to view, sit back and enjoy.You’ll probably even be able to combine all that content with other technologies (for example, augmented reality).  If you have a Sony PS3 or Internet television set, you can surf these PINs (pay Internet network) on your television rather than on your computer. You could also have all this to go if you have a tablet or smart phone. The cable and PIN companies will most likely have a structure in place so if you’re a subscriber of a certain cable channel, like HBO, all their content will be available on the PINs. Social network giants like Facebook will be on every company’s PIN. In fact, such a structure would give a ubiquitous company like Facebook even more power since not having such a popular social network as part of a PIN would inconvenience the PIN’s subscribers who would have to leave the PIN to go to Facebook.

And we will be given all this content in the safety of PINs which will shield us from the grime of the open Web (viruses, malware, spam, unwanted porn, etc.). PINs won’t restrict their subscribers from doing anything or leaving their networks. The subscribers just won’t want to leave the networks, or have a need to. PIN subscribers will essentially be turned into the betrayer, Cypher, from the film The Matrix: fully aware of the matrix but willing to go back in nonetheless. Unlike the people in the matrix, however, PIN subscriber will be aware, fully cognizant of not actually surfing the Web; and most won’t care, especially parents because PINs will be particularly useful for protecting our kids from undesirable content (I can’t I say blame them, either). Parents will be able to block certain content altogether, even set up a password so their kids have to stay within the PIN. Unlike current software that parents use to restrict certain aspects of the Internet, PINs will be more subtle and won’t get in the way when kids need to do research for their school assignments since PINs will have their own search engines, referencing even the free open Web (minus the inappropriate content). Just imagine AOL on steroids.

Remember AOL in the 90s? The problem with AOL in the 90s was threefold:  timing, lack of content and deception in the way it passed itself off as the Internet. Most Internet users back then were relatively young and at least somewhat tech-savvy. They weren’t all teenagers and computer programmers, but the range of the demographic wasn’t as broad as it is today. The Internet was a confusing place for someone who had never used it. So AOL was a good, virtual set of online training wheels. But technology progressed; the Internet got more and more popular; email became ubiquitous; and technology and the Web became less cumbersome to use, less intimidating. Grandmothers are on Facebook today. Internet and TV are being integrated (Internet television), the process being lead by the tech giants Google and Apple. Even if you don’t have an Internet television set, you can still surf the Web on your regular TV set by using a game console such as a Sony Playstation 3. A broadband connection is no longer a luxury just for “techie” people (hasn’t been for quite some time). Movies are watched on computers and phones. The distinction between the Web and Internet is becoming more and more apparent with the Internet having become a vehicle for applications (Facebook, Netflix, YouTube, iTunes, P2P apps), used not just on computers but increasingly more on smart phones and tablets.

Image source: podcastingnews.com

Most of us have become complacent with the idea of making sacrifices in the name of entertainment and convenience. For the entertainment value of social networking, we voluntarily display our personal information, post pictures of ourselves and show all our friends to the world. Although social networks do offer various levels of privacy and security settings today, it wasn’t always that way. And the lack of privacy and security didn’t stop people from signing up. MySpace, for example, offered limited security and privacy settings, if any, when it became popular. In 2005, for instance, there was no option to set your profile to private so only your friends could view your profile. You created a profile page and anyone on the open Web could see you. As MySpace got more popular, entered negotiations with Fox, and enough people complained to Tom (or rather to his profile), MySpace eventually instituted privacy and security settings. But even after they instituted those settings, the person who sent you a message on MySpace could check to see if you’d read the message or not; and there was no setting to change that message protocol. But, since MySpace was giving us all that fun in exchange for this small invasion of our privacy, we all continued to log on and participate. Despite the lack of privacy and security, millions of people signed up for MySpace. And soon, MySpace had enough members to attract a buyer like Fox (this was before any privacy and security settings had been instituted).

We’ve become conditioned to giving up our privacy. Most of our phones have some sort of GPS tracking system. Many Facebook users intentionally set up their accounts and smart phones so when they arrive at locations–like bars, clubs, restaurants, etc.–that are part of Facebook’s network, the Facebook users’ statuses automatically get updated to let everyone on their respective friend lists know where they are. It’s called “checking in.” These users are essentially wearing tracking anklets like people who are on house arrest do, except they’re doing it voluntarily. We’ve all become very comfortable with being monitored. We’ve all voluntarily given up more and more of our privacy every year, one little piece at a time, all in the pursuit of entertainment, convenience and technological progress.

Facial recognition gone awry is the next step in the invasion of our privacy. Facial recognition is fun when you post a picture of yourself on Facebook and allow an application to tell you which celebrity you resemble the most. But now there’s an application called Recognizr (designed by Polar Rose, which was recently acquired by Apple), an augmented reality, facial recognition application for use on smart phones. Using such an app, anyone could take a picture of you while you’re walking down the street or meandering at the mall and run the application to search for any pictures of you on the Internet, including those pictures of yourself you so innocently posted on Facebook, MySpace, LinkdIn, PhotoBucket, etc. And that’s just the beginning. After they find you online, they have your name and any info you may have posted while social networking (email address, phone number, employment history, etc.). This is a stalker’s dream. Scary to think what sex offenders and other predatory members of our society (like identity thieves) could do with Recognizr. But technology enthusiasts and leaders speak of such applications with glee in their eyes  (watch this video for such an example). In the video, Alasdair Allan speaks of a facial recognition database where pictures and all information pertaining to those people could be used for an augmented reality application. So if you’re bad with names, augmented reality glasses will recognize a face and display all of that persons information within the glasses (his/her name, spouse and kids’ names, birthday, etc., whatever is stored in the database). He is, of course, speaking of private databases. And I freely admit that it does sound like it could be a useful tool for some people. But what happens when a smart phone or whatever gadget that holds all that information on everyone is lost or stolen? Even those who choose not to partake in such technologies will have their privacy violated by the people who do.

Today’s technological world is one in which we not only give up our own privacy but our family and friends’ as well. You can set your privacy setting on Facebook to be as strict as possible, but if your friends participate in all those games and applications (which require their participants to share information), your information will still be shared indirectly through your friends. In his review of Lawrence Lessig’s book Code: And other Laws of Cyberspace, David Pogue wrote that “Unlike actual law, Internet software has no capacity to punish. It doesn’t affect people who aren’t online…” (1). That is no longer the case today (arguably not even back then). We post pictures and videos of ourselves with our friends and family without getting their permission. In fact, we tag them. With the feeling of safety we get from being sequestered in networks and applications rather than being out there in the vast open Web, we are sharing information online we never would have a decade ago.

So why do we partake in all these networks and applications? Because it’s fun and seems cleaner and safer than surfing the open Web. The latter requires having a purpose for being online; even if it’s just looking for mindless entertainment, you still need a specific goal. But social media and networks bring everything to us in convenient packages full of friends, games and suggestions, even suggestions for friends and games. They know what to give us from all the data mining they do so diligently, data we inadvertently provide to them every time we click on anything while we’re on their networks and use their applications (I say we because I’m there, too). We even provide data intentionally when we sign up for, say, a Yahoo! email account. We tell them what updates we want, our age, sex and what our interests are, all of which they will use to classify us into demographic categories and make suggestions on what to consume.

Image source: wired.com

The trend of using more and more applications and networks rather than surfing the Web is what Chris Anderson referred to as the death of the open Web in his article, The Death of Web. Long Live The Internet (published August 17th of 2010):

You wake up and check your email on your bedside iPad — that’s one app. During breakfast you browse Facebook, Twitter, and The New York Times — three more apps. On the way to the office, you listen to a podcast on your smartphone. Another app. At work, you scroll through RSS feeds in a reader and have Skype and IM conversations. More apps. At the end of the day, you come home, make dinner while listening to Pandora, play some games on Xbox Live, and watch a movie on Netflix’s streaming service.

You’ve spent the day on the Internet — but not on the Web. And you are not alone.

About a week later, Eric Knorr from PC World summed up Anderson’s sentiment in his own article, The Web Has Flatlined:

Web video, it turns out, is not Web video. It’s video! As such, video is actually hogging a larger chunk of Internet bandwidth than the Web — which is made up of Craigslist and a few other HTML sites.

Which leads us to his second proclamation: The Web got so tiny because Facebook (which now has more members than the entire population of the world) and sites like it are not the Web, either! You see, Facebook is an application. According to Anderson, if it’s intended to do one thing, and it has a lick of JavaScript or PHP, it doesn’t matter whether it lives in a browser or in a mobile app store: It’s an application, not the Web.

And Chris Anderson and Eric Knorr are supporting Virginia Heffernan’s NY Times article, The Death of the Open Web (published May 21st of 2010), in which she likens the world of the iPhone and iPad to suburbia, a means for its users to shield themselves from the ugliness of the open Web. As she puts it,

…a kind of virtual redlining is now under way. The Webtropolis is being stratified. Even if, like most people, you still surf the Web on a desktop or laptop, you will have noticed pay walls, invitation-only clubs, subscription programs, privacy settings and other ways of creating tiers of access. All these things make spaces feel “safe” — not only from viruses, instability, unwanted light and sound, unrequested porn, sponsored links and pop-up ads, but also from crude design, wayward and unregistered commenters and the eccentric voices and images that make the Web constantly surprising, challenging and enlightening.

When a wall goes up, the space you have to pay to visit must, to justify the price, be nicer than the free ones. The catchphrase for software developers is “a better experience.”

In such a world, the market is ripe for PINs (pay Internet network), which brings us to content. There are already pay websites where we could sequester ourselves. But those sites aim at niche demographics or serve a limited purpose. They’re like gated communities with lots of amenities. You’re safe, but you eventually need to come out to go to work, go shopping, go out for dinner, etc. Of course, when you do go shopping, you could go to a safe mall (like Facebook, Yahoo!, etc.), but your options are still limited. What’s lacking in all this application-oriented Internet is a super-mall (as I described above) that’s more like a miniature city, with everything you think you could possibly want.

But why would anyone pay to surf a network when the Internet/Web is free (other than the cost of the connection and some pay-membership sites) and so full content? Furthermore, anyone with a game console (like Sony’s PS3) or Internet TV could have television and Internet on one big screen. Why would someone with such a setup pay for a PIN? Well, why do we pay for cable TV when broadcast TV is free? To get more content. For example, The Sopranos would’ve never been made to be broadcast for free on, say, CBS (at least not with the same graphic material, which was the source of its edgy and authentic feel, the reason for its popularity). Without the forum of cable TV, shows like Californication and Weeds would’ve never been made. But whereas cable TV reduces censorship (at least on the surface), PINs will increase monitoring and data mining and introduce a new level of censorship and politics to the Internet, which will further the death of the Web and, what Lawrence Lessig calls, “permission culture.”

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Creating a website will no longer just be a matter of using code to create a website and placing that code on a server somewhere with a unique domain. To publish something in a PIN, you will need to get approval from those in power, which will likely require agreeing with those in charge (in essence, you will need their permission to exercise your right to freedom of speech). The corporations that own the PINs will undoubtedly copyright as much of their content as the law allows so they could own everything on their networks. And once they’ve achieved that, they will make power moves to influence laws so they could further their copyrights. This means you won’t just need their permission to express yourself. You will also give up the copyright of your creation in order to be on their networks.

So, why publish in a PIN? The open Web will still be there, right? Sure, but most people will be surfing within the PINs they subscribe to. The “free” Web will be for subcultures at best. Assuming that pages published in PINs will be allowed to link to “free” pages, the subscriber will undoubtedly get a warning popup message designed to deter–though not restrict–the subscriber from leaving the PIN, saying something like “You are about to leave the security of our network. We cannot guarantee your safety from viruses, malware, spyware, etc. Leave at your own discretion.”  And linking in the other direction (from a free page to a page on a PIN) will mean only people who subscribe to that particular PIN will be able to view both the free and PIN pages. And anytime a subscriber leaves their PIN, it will be logged somewhere. When a free page gets popular enough, a PIN will come along and buy it (either to engulf it into their network so it can be controlled or shut it down, depending on the content of the free page).

Will we stand idly by while all this happens? Yes, at least the mass populace will. PINs will be too fun, too convenient, to fight. We’ve shown that when there’s convenience or entertainment to be had, we are willing to ignore the harm we cause and just partake. For instance, how many local video stores are around today? Even national chains like Blockbuster and Hollywood Video are closing down branches that were once brimming with activity. Why leave the comfort of your home to go out and rent a video at a store (which may or may not have the movie you’re looking for in the first place) when you could order it on-demand, stream it or put it in your cue on your Netflix account and have it delivered? How many of us are willing to give up our on-demand cable and Netflix and return to renting at physical stores to help the local economy? We abandoned local stores (or mom-and-pop shops, if you will) for the giants Blockbuster and Hollywood Video because they offered more than most local stores and were more convenient; and we left physical stores altogether for the convenience of services like on-demand and Netflix. The hybrid of renting movies online and physical stores is Redbox: a convenient, movie-rental vending machine. And now it seems that cable companies and movie studios have teamed up to shut down Netflix and Redbox by not releasing movies to them for weeks after they’ve already been released to on-demand services (and the scarce physical video stores in order to avoid monopoly infringement).

These current power plays are indicative of what we can expect from the corporations that will own the PINs. When a PIN censors, it won’t be called censorship. They will call the process “safeguarding of our subscribers” and the censored content “not market-appropriate.” Such euphemisms will be thrown around while they influence or get rid of content they find undesirable (for whatever reason). Still, what is the problem? The PINs are filtering out the elements we don’t want from the open Web and providing us with everything we do want (which they know from the data mining they do), and much more.

By controlling our online media content, they will essentially control our culture, at least mainstream culture. We are a consumerism and media-driven society. But that consumerism and media is influenced, in large part, by subculture. But PINs will virtually eliminate most of that influence from subculture. They will do this because subculture is uncontrollable, unpredictable most of the time. Today, what gets “tested” and survives the spontaneous quality assurance process of subculture spreads to mainstream culture. For example, back in the ‘90s, “Internet dating” (the process of meeting people in chat rooms and then meeting them in real life) was looked down upon by the masses. Sitcoms made fun of it and portrayed it as a desperate act by someone living in abject loneliness. Today we have eHarmony.com, Match.com, soulmates.com, Jdate.com, etc., and they advertise on primetime TV slots. “Internet dating” is now called “online dating.” Online dating is advertised as a viable way to meet someone to experience something “more meaningful” (of course there are sites like Cougars.com if you just want to have fun). In fact, these advertisements discourage meeting people the traditional way. They show testimonies of people who found their soul mates using their services, sending a clear message that online dating is the only way to date in today’s technological and fast-paced world. In actuality, however, online dating is simply another way to meet people. And unlike Internet dating during the ‘90s, there is no longer a stigma attached to online dating today.

But online dating made it to mainstream society because it passed the testing process of subculture. PINs are not likely to give us anything that isn’t polished, sure to be popular or going make money. Blockbuster, The Olive Garden of video stores, will most likely have their own PIN. Their PIN will be sanitary, just like their stores. And Blockbuster will in no way have anything to do with subculture except when it’s guaranteed to make them money. By the time something makes it to Blockbuster’s PIN, it will have been sanitized for our own good, which means the soul of it will have been sandblasted off.

As sanitary PINs run by corporate culture gain popularity (and they will be run by giants like Time-Warner and Verizon), subculture will have less and less impact. Subscribers will become less inclined to leave the safety on their PINs. They won’t need to. All the popular entertainment, news and social media and networks will be right there in one neat package. Only the curious will brave the open Web. It will be harder and harder for subcultural material to get noticed. Only smaller companies that “play ball” with PINs will be allowed to reach mainstream culture. As a culture spending more and more time in front of some type of screen, as PINs gain more and more popularity, we will spend even more time watching what they dictate, which is how corporations will shape our culture. And culture influences (though it doesn’t necessarily control) what we want, how we think, the way we feel about certain issues and even people, etc.

There is hope, however. Corporations will only be able to control mainstream culture for so long, because subculture will always exist and influence mainstream thought, if not through the Internet, then some other way (create whole new media, if necessary). PINs, being online suburbia, will be boring to the generation that grew up with it. And that generation will seek something beyond the firewalls of the PINs, just as kids who were raised in the safety of suburban life often leave that cocoon and venture into urban life to seek something different and exciting, something with real culture and soul, something a little dangerous, something truly original in its glorious raw form–even if all they find is a remix of former subcultures.

1) Lessig’s book was published in 1999 and Pogue’s review of it was published in The New York Times on January 30th of 2000