TOC The future of the Internet Your Turn

August 15, 2012

Over more than six years, a time span which passes as an eternity on Internet, my views have encompassed eprivacy, pronaocracy, economic efficiency and their relationships. Prop eprivacy with proper property laws and Adams Smith's invisible hand can work its magic on level playing fields. As this threatens Internet insiders who profit from rigged markets, they buy protection from lawmakers by financing their elections.

Thus and short of a catastrophe, we may not enjoy the fruits of eprivacy. Meanwhile however, time will not stand still. If not eprivacy, then what?

Pronaocracy may prevent the passage of beneficial laws. It does not follow it has much power to enforce the harmful laws it enacts. Writing about its individual rather than its corporate incarnation, Nick Bilton soberly declares "stopping online piracy is like playing the world's largest game of Whac-A-Mole" (*). For him, this has no future and "time would be better spent playing an entirely different game".

If despite its crushing blows on individual targets and ever so gentle oversight of corporate rogues, the law does not rule the Internet, then what?

The first force to be reckoned with is the natural desire of all human beings for self-expression, to which Internet provides such a ready outlet.

This factor derives its strength from its immediacy. Compare censorship to privacy. Can one for instance estimate the current value of the gains one forgoes and the risks one incurs in view of all the personal data slyly accumulated by Google on oneself? Take instead this crack-down reported by Choe Sang-Hun in South Korean. "A government critic who called the president a curse word on his Twitter account found it blocked" (**).

American society draws a sharp distinction between action and self expression. It thinks free speech does no harm and bears no responsibility. In reality no weapon is more lethal than a few, well timed words (1) or cartoons (2) intended and received as an insult. Internet rumors can kill, as indeed happened in said South Korea (3). And, even in the US, free speech is not as free from consequences as Americans want to believe.

"Reporters Without Borders listed South Korea as a country "under surveillance" [...] putting it in the company of Russia, Egypt and other nations known for their intolerance to dissent". This opinion is not without validity but what an unfortunate choice of words.

One must not confuse censorship and surveillance. The former is highly visible. The latter strives in the shadows. It is the preferred method in the United States. "Twitter officials have complied with a court order to turn over account information to help New York City police investigators identify who threatened to carry out a Colorado-style movie theater shooting at a Broadway theater", reports Wendy Ruderman (***).

This calls attention to two related facts without which we cannot understand the future of the Internet.

More preventive than punitive, censorship is in principle less exposed than surveillance to the threat of eprivacy. To shut down an account, one does not not need to know all about the owner. To track down a wanted target, the more you learn about her personal profile, the better.

Concerned with studying rather than suppressing expression, surveillance depends more on access to data bases than control over communications. As it can press Facebook, Google and Twitter for sharing their loot at any time, the United States freely rail against censorship. Is it a surprise?

Meanwhile according to Noah Shachtman, "Kaspersky and the Moscow government have espoused strikingly similar views on cybersecurity", including calls to censor social networks and arguing "that the Internet should be partitioned and certain regions of it made accessible only to users who present an "Internet passport" (****). This call for censorship is not so much, as Kaspersky declares, against privacy as for strong identity.

Internet is therefore a key battlefield where states and non state actors play their selfish hand. Russia may dislike the rowdiness of Facebook, the latter resents the nosiness of the US. So does Google but, against China, Google and the US are allies, as Russia and Microsoft against all viruses.

Still, for all its strength, self-expression fails to provide the Internet with much of an economic model. Piracy itself being unsustainable, Internet has no future unless it facilitates commerce. How? Whether one admits or fights it, value in digital production is capped. The same is true of digital distribution. At core Amazon is a logistic company for physical goods delivery. Remains marketing, the bridging of offer and demand.

Google's original model, the keyword search and ad combination, has proven a brilliant success. No doubt it no longer represents the future, not when Google itself invests so much into social networking and smart telephony. What the next model will be however is very much in doubt.

"Mobile advertising faces inherent limitations, and not just because of the smaller screen and limited attention" (*****). To the absence of cookies Richard Waters adds "the lack of accepted norms for how to use [location] information without infringing privacy". A similar issue plagues social networking. After a ruling in Australia, companies may be forced to censor "defamatory or misleading comments posted by ordinary users on corporate Facebook pages". April Dembosky reminds us Facebook "struggl[es] to prove the effectiveness of its advertising model" (******).

Privacy? Censorship? Haven't we dismissed these issues as secondary, at least in the United States? Yes but in a specific context. The First Amendment does not condone false advertising and the public little brooks privacy violations when they become too visible. What is more obvious than to receive an unsollicited ad from the very store you are passing by or this office friend at whose buying habits you laught behind his back?

Then what? New marketing models will be found of course, based, if past experience carries over, on new forms of trusted recommendations.

Ironically Google denies trusted recommendations are the reason of its success. If not, would it taint the objectivity of its searches with "plans to buy the Frommer's brand of travel guides" as Claire Cain Miller reports (*******), would it be so keen to slap the face of the European Commission?

May I venture to add trusted recommendations from friends violates no privacy and need not be public and thus confused with commercial speech?

There I go, pushing my own plans as selfishly as any actor. You may not trust me but can you prove they are not within the future of the Internet?

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) ............. Internet Pirates Will Always Win, by Nick Bilton (New York Times) - August 5, 2012
  • (**) ........... Korea Policing The Net. Twist? It's South Korea, by Choe Sang-Hun (New York Times) - August 13, 2012
  • (***) ......... Court Prompts Twitter to Give Data to Police In Threat Case, by Wendy Ruderman (New York Times) - August 8, 2012
  • (****) ....... Eugene Kaspersky, Virus Hunter, by Noah Shachtman (Wired) - August, 2012
  • (*****) ..... Roaming for a revenue revolution, by Richard Waters (Financial Times) - August 9, 2012
  • (******) ... Aussie challenge for Facebook, by April Dembosky (Financial Times) - August 13, 2012
  • (*******) . Google Says It Will Buy Frommer's For Content, by Claire Cain Miller (New York Times) - August 14, 2012
  • (1) for more details, see the Ems Telegram in the wikipedia
  • (2) for more details, see the Danish cartoon controversy in the wikipedia
  • (3) Web Rumors Tied to Korean Actress's Suicide, by Choe Sang-Hun (New-York Times) - October 3, 2008
August 2012
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