The new battleground

How the internet shapes social movement in the face of regulation

It has become commonplace to describe the web as the Wild West – a place where there are no rules, no regulations, and not much protection. It is therefore no surprise that the web has become a battleground for governments, commercial entities, and users, each fighting to preserve their own interests for the future.

Derek Ruths, an assistant professor of Computer Science at McGill who teaches COMP 189, a course on Computers and Society, explains that forecasting the future of the internet is difficult because these changes will be accompanied by society’s changing ideas and expectations about privacy and regulation.

“Ten years ago people would have thought Facebook, the idea of putting all that information online, was ridiculous. But somehow society has changed,” he said in an interview with The Daily.

The rise of networking sites like Twitter and information warehouses such as Wikileaks has been attributed to civil uprisings that have occurred across the world. The 2009 protests in Moldova were dubbed by the media as that country’s “Twitter Revolution.”

However, some, like Malcolm Gladwell, the author of the New Yorker article “Why the revolution will not be tweeted,” have argued that the internet plays a peripheral role in social uprisings, such as those that took place in Moldova and Iran. Ruths, while agreeing, stated that the role of the internet may expand in future uprisings.

“Large parts of the population [are] not online, and we don’t have a good understanding of how to use [the web] yet,” he said. It may then be the case that once the social theory around the use of the internet is developed, future online networks will become not a reflection of, but a basis for social movements.

However, while society is figuring out new ways to harness the power the internet, legislators across many countries have been moving toward enacting regulatory measures on the web.

In an address to students at George Washington University on February 15, the United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for “ground rules to protect the World Wide Web.” International treaties in the future might follow the example of Finland, where, in 2009, broadband access was made a legal right. In Egypt, where the government retains control over internet service providers (ISPs), some 88 per cent of internet traffic was shut down within tens of minutes for a period of five days this month in response to the wave of protests in that country. The establishment of international ground rules and penalties may serve to discourage nations from restricting access to the internet.

On the other hand, with increasing regulation we may also see the establishment of tighter controls, similar to China’s “Great Firewall.” In the U.S., senators have introduced the “Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act of 2010,” a controversial bill that if enacted, will grant emergency powers over the internet to the president, potentially including “kill switches” or legal control over ISPs in times of emergency. Ruths pointed out that with threats such as spam, viruses, worms, and denial-of-service (DoS) attacks, concerns about the lack of rules and regulations concerning the internet are legitimate and must be addressed. However, he expressed some reservation about the regulations that are being enacted. “It’s not clear that people who are the decision makers in this have the technical knowledge to sort of think about the actual options and their implications.”

Along with governmental regulatory bodies, the market is proving to be a powerful force in shaping the future of the internet. One of the battle fronts, the “net neutrality” dispute, has pitted ISPs against content providers. Many ISPs are seeking to implement tiered networks that will charge content providers to deliver different levels of services. ISPs maintain that tiered networks will allow for better delivery of services and innovation, while content providers argue that their implementation will allow ISPs to discriminate between data, and threaten web freedoms and openness.

On another front, many ISPs are looking to regulate internet usage at the user level. Recently the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission ruled in favour of regulation by allowing telecommunications companies to charge usage-based fees – as opposed to the current monthly flat rate. After a wave of petitions and protests, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Minister of Industry are set to reverse the ruling.

With an ever-changing landscape, the future of the internet remains unpredictable. However, Ruths encourages the public to inform itself about these critical issues, and, cautiously optimistic, remarked “there’s some rough times ahead for sure… [but] I find it hard to believe that we’re going to end up in a very dismal scenario.”