Get ready for the Big Corporate Takeover of the Web

The Internet is not going to disappear any time soon, at least short of a nuclear holocaust or a world-wide power outage. Big business has simply invested too much money in it to let that happen. What's at stake is the pioneering concept of a free and open network of hyperlinked resources. Media leviathans may feel threatened by You Tube, but they'll learn to work with it. Although server farms and desktop PCs may still produce an annoying hum, they represent a tiny fraction of global electricity consumption. The dot com boom years let a lucky few exploit new opportunities, but ten years on most large Internet enterprises would not have seen the light of day or night were it not for huge capital investment from the usual suspects. To attract millions of paying visitors to one of over a billion Internet domains, you need to invest heavily in advertising. The other day I caught sight of a huge billboard for www.ask.com. Why bother spending millions on an antiquated poster campaign if people can search the Web for alternatives to Google (the default for Firefox, Safari, Opera and Konqueror users), Yahoo and Microsoft's Windows Live (the default for IE 7 users). Tech-savvy users with a modern browser (i.e. post IE 6 era) can always add a search engine to their search bar. I've added Clusty, Yahoo, Creative Commons, php.net, Wikipedia, Ask Dot Com, Google Maps UK and even Window Live to my Firefox search box. But most Web users just use whatever comes standard just like most users of word processors do not know how to save in a different format (File > Save as in most cases). Unless they see a huge billboard on the way to work or are advised by close friends to try another search, they might never dream of fiddling with their browser's default settings. Anyway I gave ask dot com spin. If you want to search a well known organisation, person or authorised information on a given subject, ask dot com will suit you fine. Your average BBC news fan and Daily Mail reader, accustomed to officially sanctioned truth, will love it. Want to learn about retiring Prime Minister Tony Blair? Let's cut out all the crap from numerous sites exposing the man's sheer hypocrisy and corruption and go straight to 10 Downing Street's site or New Labour's site or maybe a review of a favourable biography on Amazon Dot Com. This is great for your kids' homework too. Their Blair/Brownite teachers will give them full marks. Want to know about the 9/11 destruction of the World Trade Center? Again the only references to conspiracy theories are ones denouncing or debunking all theories that challenge the orthodox version of events. You certainly don't want your child suggesting in a school essay the physical impossibility of a near perfect vertical collapse of a 400 metre tall skyscraper without a controlled demolition using thermite. What if your child wishes to learn more about human reproduction? Many parents would understandably prefer their inquisitive children not to view certain pornographic sites, which in all honesty, offer little enlightenment on any aspect of sexuality. With ask dot com's filters you can rest assured that should your 5 year old daughter types pussy cat, she will only see listings hits pertaining to friendly furry felines.

In its early years the World Wide Web was mostly used by academia and computer geeks expanding rapidly to IT-literate businesses, but online shopping was confined to a technophile elite until 2002/3. Indeed globally it still is. Now even Sun-readers and Sky-TV addicts do their Tesco shopping online. They don't care about thei socio-environmental impact of Tesco's domination of the grocery trade. It's cool to shop online from the comfort of their sofa and they can have some more quality to time to play with their kids or maybe gamble online or engage in a mindless blether via MSN, preinstalled on their Tesco/PC World/Currys PC or perhaps upgrade their preinstalled edition of Norton AntiVirus (happily using over half of their brand new system's resources and requiring a memory upgrade to 4GB so they can crop that picture of kids on holiday in Ibiza last year). To test the technical competency of modern UK resident, ask if they trust Internet banking or consider IE6 a safe browser as long as they have donated £40 to Symantec. If they believe the hype about the Internet banking revolution, they probably have little understanding of its inner workings. Yes, key-logging software, often installed with the free gizmos (search bars and famncy cursors) you can install only on Windows, can capture confidential data even if your Internet connection is encrypted via SSL. Your only real protection against fraudsters is to set up a firewall, use a sensible non-Microsoft browser, (Firefox,Opera or Safari) and uninstall all crapware and best of all not use MS Windows, but don't expect anyone from corporate estalishment to tell you that. Indeed they'll tell you the opposite, e.g. Channel 4's 40D Player will only work with WIndows Media Player 11 and Internet Explorer and basically we don't care a less if you accidentally download viruses if Internet Explorer activates My Web Search Bar. The whole debate about the platform-neutral provision of copyright-protected media using Digital Rights Management is rather tedious, as DRM empowers remote organisations to control content on your hard drive.

Does Internet smut debase women (men and children). Of course is does. Is Internet gambling even more addictive than bricks-and-mortar casinos? Probably. Does prolonged exposure and addiction to violent video games desensitise young minds to the true horrors of warfare? Again the weight of evidence and common sense suggests it does. The sad fact of the matter is that none of these pursuits either require a free and open World Wide Web or started with mass adoption of broadband Internet access. Porn has long used print media and videotapes. Virtual violence evolved mainly with game consoles plugged into TV sets and gambling has always thrived where governments let a few entrepreneural crooks entice the masses with dreams of limitless wealth. The Internet is just another vehicle. Phenemona like spam, viruses, spyware and phising simply destroys people's confidence in the Internet as a medium. What governments and karge organisations fear most is the continued democratisation of the Internet. They lose little sleep over morons who claim to have seen two-headed purple extraterrestrials in their back garden. They worry more about those intent on exposing the sheer hypocrisy an corruption of the ruling elite.

A.N. WIlson of the Daily Mail favourably reviewed Andrew Keen's The Cult of the Amateur, bemoaning staff cutbacks at the Encyclopaedia Britannica, as a result of the phenomenal expansion of Wikipedia. Not only is Wikipedia much more comprehensive than the Anglosaxon establishment's authorised fount of all knowledge worth knowing, it allows contributions from the general public. In reality numerous contributions on controversial or sensitive topics have already been censored by Wikipedia editors, partly an act of self-censorship to appear credible to the corporate and state elite. What worries large corporations is the wealth of information not yet censored and numerosity of links to unorthodox sources of information. They fear not so much that casual surfers may stumble on more disinformation, which thrives in the mainstream media, but they may find out what their masters are up to, verify facts and challenge their allegiance to the ruling elite.

By equating the massive potential the Internet has for unbridled commercial exploitation, cultural decay and brainwashing with the disinformation of amateurs daring to have their own say, Mr Wilson expects us to trust the likes of the BBC (who have broadcast their fair share of moronic violence) to decide what we may or may not access. They would like to see an unfree Web. Broadly speaking Windows Live, CNN, the BBC, Tesco, the Encyclopaedia Britannica and a plethora of censored blogspots and moderated discussion groups (lest someone express a racist opinion of course). The entertainment industry lobby will ensure public access to online casinos and first person shooters. Plenty of eye candy, a wide selection of DRM-ed media and games, but we can kiss goodbye to our freedom of expression. It's your Internet, treat it like your neighbourhood. If you let crooks and gangsters seize control, you'll need heavily armed police and curfews to provide of minimum of security. But if you let a community spirit prosper in the treu spirit of peace and open debate, you might just hold your rulers to account.

My unpublished comment:

While I share Mr Wilson's concern over cultural decay, Internet smut and a growing obsession with virtual violence, I disagree over collaborative projects such as Wikipedia, which, warts and all, remains one of the Internet's greatest achievements. Why should we in a democratic society rely solely on state and corporate entities such as Encyclopaedia Britannica?

The aforementioned social trends started long before most of us had an e-mail account, mainly thanks to multi-million dollar blockbusters, MTV and soap operas, produced by media leviathans who now see their grip on the collective psyche challenged by P2P file sharing. The Web has both reflected and accelerated existing trends, but with its increasing commercialisation we see its early democratising aspects drowned in an ocean of flashing ads, scams and disinformation. May I suggest the main concern of the British establishment is not protecting children from porn or violence, but silencing dissent?

Author: 
Neil Gardner
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