2012 ended on a discordant note for the Internet. The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) is the forum at which governments propose regulations and standards for telecoms. Many member states of the ITU regard the Internet as something which should be within beyond their control, and should be absorbed within the ITU’s regulation-setting framework which would give governments more direct control of the Internet beyond their borders. Within their national borders, authoritarian regimes already clamp down on freedom of access and freedom of usage. Using issues such as cybercrime and online pornography they find it easy to make a case for ‘controlling’ content on the Internet. In December 2012 at the ITU conference in Dubai, they broke precedent to force through a non-binding vote on the need for the ITU to control spam and ensure cyber security. These apparently innocuous issues were so divisive that 55 member states, led by the US, voted against and then walked out of the meeting which, according to protocol, should only proceed by consensus, not by voting. The resolution seems a place-holder for future attempts to rein in control of the Internet, to ‘regulate’ it. There are genuine issues of cyber security, but to use them to wrestle for government control of cyberspace is not a good omen for the future. 2012 really was dotty.com
So what lies in store for 2103? Back to the future is one less than optimistic view. After Apple’s success in constructing a walled garden ring-fenced for several years by an ‘iFence’ consisting of iTunes, Apple Store full of Apple-approved apps, the company has seemingly hardened its stance by dropping support of Google Maps with somewhat disastrous consequences for itself and launched aggressive law suits against its main competitors, all signs of impending weakness as it runs out of new ideas. Meanwhile Twitter has tried the same trick by blocking Instagram, and Instagram in turn has shot itself in the foot by announcing that what you own it owns and what it owns you don’t. Instagram quickly reverted back to its original policy after huge public backlash. Instagram is, of course, owned by Facebook which seems like it has set up a specialist department tasked solely with upsetting its users as far as its imagination allows. Even ‘Don’t be Evil’ Google continues to run the gauntlet of countless regulatory challenges to the way it collects and uses data and allocates search results. Next up they all expand into each other’s gardens and into the worlds of TV and the carrier business. It’s a far cry from those innocent days when the Internet was God’s gift to little people.
But there must be optimism out there somewhere, as Gramsci’s now clichéd remark said, pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will. Well, for starters 55 member states did walk out of the ITU’s sad efforts to rein in the Internet. And Apple, Google and the rest do continue to give us services that make our lives much easier, even if they are driven by profit motives. For the most part these services may be no more than trivial pursuits, but that’s better than law suits. And most of all, we do sense that we haven’t seen anything yet in terms of what could be achieved with apps to address issues such as pollution, rehabilitation of handicapped people, access to education and health facilities of even the poorest on the Earth and so, so much more. The pioneering spirit of the Internet – forget the military aspects – was to address issues of humanity and what the hell, why not think that 2013 could see some resurrect interest in them. Happy 2013.