November 7, 2014
WORLD WAR WEB
It has been 25 years since the World Wide Web was developed, and no one could have predicted the vast impact it has had on our lives. Had they been able to so, it seems unlikely that it could have been allowed to grow and evolve unimpeded in the way that it has. It has now come of age, and is proving, to some, to be an unwieldy and complex creature, in need of taming. For every benefit, we are finding a hidden threat. The list of disturbing news stories related to the web in recent years is almost endless: Net Neutrality, Edward Snowden and the NSA, Wikileaks, hacked celebrity photos, cyber-bullying, Anonymous and other hacker groups, internet piracy, rick-rolling… the list goes on and on. Faced with a constant barrage of these issues, governments, tech giants and consumers are having to fight for control of the internet – and usually against each other. Make no mistake about it – this is war.
Nowhere was this clearer than Hungary last week, when Prime Minister Viktor Orban announced a plan to introduce an internet tax to help bolster the country’s ailing finances. The proposal involved charging Internet Service Providers for each gigabyte of data that they processed at a cost of 150 forints, or 60c per GB. To put this in perspective, a digital download of a new computer game would cost each user approximately $30. To say this was an unpopular decision is an understatement – this last weekend, tens of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets, and consequently the decision was reversed.
If you think this sort of draconian behaviour is limited to former Soviet States of Europe, think again. In the USA, one of the hottest political topics (one that doesn’t involve actual politicians, sadly) at the moment concerns ‘Net Neutrality’. This is the principle that all data on the web is accessible by all people without discrimination in terms of cost, content or anything else. In May, the FCC approved a proposal that would allow ‘internet fast lanes’ for those that paid a higher premium. As part of the process, the public were allowed to air their views, which they did, and in great numbers. Over a million US consumers commented on the issue, far more than any proposal ever had before. While most ISPs seem to be interested in keeping the web open, Verizon is set to pursue litigation.
The internet’s global reach is both a blessing and a curse. The fact that it is a vast, online community, without borders, means that activists are able to organise themselves much more easily than many other groups. But it is also the means by which hackers from one country can disrupt websites of other countries and global mega-corporations can take advantage. The revelations last year about the NSA’s widespread data collection methods caused a great deal of concern around the world, and governments are now working to protect themselves. For example, from 2015, any data collected by cloud storage facilities must remain in Russia, and such services must be physically located on Russian soil. This has huge implications for Apple’s iCloud and anyone already using or reliant upon such technology in Russia. Germany is also looking at introducing new safeguards to protect themselves, by demanding that US sites reveal their source code to prevent sensitive information from being passed on.
In Spain, the issue is slightly different, but no less contentious. Here, the goal is not so much to protect people from intrusive spying by foreign governments, but more to protect local businesses from the influence of globally dominant companies. A copyright law has just been passed to prevent Google and other news aggregator sites from posting links or snippets from domestic Spanish newspapers. Other sites that host links to Spanish papers will be at risk of a €600,000 ($750,000) fine if they do not remove them. Opponents say that the government could abuse this law, which could allow them to censor anything they don’t like. However, the downside of this is that websites lose out if they are not featured by Google. For proof of this it’s back to Germany, where powerhouse publisher Axel Springer, who had also opted out of the Google snippets, are asking to be let back in because of an 80% drop in visitor numbers.
The web may be world-wide at the moment, but increasingly it seems that individual states are exercising more and more control, while networks and ISPs struggle to keep the power they currently exert. Governments, corporations and citizens are squaring off against each other, in a battle royale for the soul of the internet, and early indications are that things may end up working differently depending on where you are, and will be of great importance to international travelers. Be sure to check back here for the latest developments.