Protect the integrity of the Internet, protect free thought

The disruption initiated by the web was always going to result in some chaos. But now the barbarians may be the gatekeepers

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Many of my generation wring their hands, dab the sweat off their upper lips and otherwise fuss – in the manner older generations do – about millennials.

They live at home until 30, ooze entitlement, have the attention span of a housefly and, because their parents’ generation mortgaged their future, are more focused on fun than ambition. Whatever.

What is, however, worth worrying about is the responsibility that will be unique to millennials: the nurturing of the World Wide Web.

Since its launch, the web has been unique in its technology and its accessible nature. It’s inventor, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, saw it as a platform for collaboration and sharing. And ever since, he’s campaigned for what has become known as net neutrality to ensure unbiased access.

As he put it at the IP Expo in 2014: “The value and excitement of the web is what we can build on it, and the mind-blowing creativity it has enabled over the last 25 years. But to continue to do that we must keep fighting to keep it a platform without central control.”

The definition of that control and how it plays out in policy terms is contentious. Some appear to view the web and the Internet as little more than the next generation of cable. And while the U.S. considers removing protections, others stand upon the ramparts in its defence.

In Canada, it’s been protected, broadly based on a philosophy that assumes it’s easier to say “No” – at this stage anyway – to any and all threats than it is to say “Yes, but …” and then disappear into an endless morass of “Yes, buts …” because it now becomes questionable to say “No.” You get my point.

The next decade – the one in which millennials assume control – will be critical. The industrial and cultural disruption initiated by the web was always going to entail a certain amount of chaos. But now the barbarians may not only have overwhelmed the gatekeepers, they may be becoming the gatekeepers.

In a recent interview with The Guardian, even Berners-Lee worried that “the system is failing,”

As The Guardian put it, Berners-Lee “always maintained his creation was a reflection of humanity – the good, the bad and the ugly.” But the rise of increasingly powerful digital gatekeepers whose algorithms can be weaponized via fake news and propaganda has him raising alarm bells.

“I’m still an optimist, but an optimist standing at the top of the hill with a nasty storm blowing in my face, hanging on to a fence,” Berners-Lee told The Guardian. “We have to grit our teeth and hang on to the fence and not take it for granted that the web will lead us to wonderful things.”

Ian Scott, the freshly-minted Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) chair, tried to offer calming words to the commission’s dependent and easily unsettled herds.

Speaking recently at the International Institute of Communications conference in Ottawa, he said: “Much is discussed today about the changes that broadband and the Internet have rung – and are ringing – across the broadcasting and telecommunications sectors. But let’s be clear: the CRTC has confronted equally disruptive technologies over the last five decades. For example, with the advent of cable, then satellite and the Internet.”

I’m not certain if this is what Scott intended but the Internet should not be placed in the same sentence as cable and satellite technologies. Nor, while the others were certainly disruptive, should the Internet be considered just another innovation.

On a scale of disruption, Berners-Lee’s web is to today’s world what Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press was 600 years before. It doesn’t just transport goods. It disseminates and receives ideas. And those, as we discovered when Martin Luther translated the Bible into German, change everything.

Whether the century ahead will be good, bad or ugly will depend largely upon every decision made about net neutrality.

Over to you, millennials. Good luck and godspeed.

Peter Menzies is a former newspaper publisher who served as a CRTC commissioner for 10 years.


The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

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