As a nation, we have all just collectively survived the masses of shrapnel from one of the most competitive and contentious presidential elections in history. One would expect that vociferous arguments over unemployment, the 47 percent, rape and creeping socialism would result in a constructive debate about the route this country needs to take in the years to come. But this election is notable not for the presence of new ideas, but for the lack of them. Some of the most pressing issues that must be addressed have been ducked, dodged, avoided and ignored in the name of winning 270 electoral votes. Of these, the most radioactive is what to do about a power that is growing stronger, more populated and more influential with every passing year: the Internet.
It’s hard to imagine now, but use of the Internet by the mass public is a new phenomenon. And a phenomenon it is. According to the Wall Street Journal, there are more than 2.5 billion people on the Internet, a population equal to the combined populations of China and India, the two most populous countries in the world. Facebook alone boasts users numbering more than 1 billion, and this number will grow as it expands into China and Russia. A report by A.T. Kearney places the amount of revenue generated by the Internet in 2008 at nearly $2 trillion—more than the GDP of Egypt, Argentina and Taiwan combined. And we all saw the integral role the Internet played in the Arab Spring as demonstrators utilized social networking sites to overcome government crackdowns and overthrow entrenched ruling dictatorships.
The Internet has become even more closely intertwined with students’ lives than most. Nearly everybody has an e-mail account; this is especially true for college students at UCR, as all of us are automatically provided one at our admittance. We store our data online and many classes require submission of documents through the iLearn system. Math and science classes regularly assign homework through online websites. And nobody can count the hours that we have logged on sites like YouTube or Facebook. All these services have organically grown as the Internet has grown.
With the Internet’s expanded reach and influence, governments are struggling to figure out how to cope with a power that doesn’t have physical boundaries, transcends political governments and exerts its power without a military. Different countries have tried different methods to grapple with this new world where the Internet reigns supreme. China has simply built a concrete wall between its population and the Internet, allowing access through only a pinhole to a scant collection of governmentally pre-approved websites. Dictatorships that have no concern over individuals’ rights can take such actions without fear of repercussion. But democracies like the United States have had to attempt a more nuanced approach. One such attempt came in 2011 when the United States House of Representatives introduced the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). The bill would have effectively censored large parts of the Internet and shut down a variety of popular Internet sites in an attempt intended to preserve intellectual copyrights. Due to a firestorm of public outcry that culminated in a Google-sponsored petition signed by over 7,000 people and a blackout of major websites (like Wikipedia), the bill was incinerated.
But the issue over Internet regulation will certainly rise from the ashes out of sheer necessity. The issue that SOPA tried to address, the debate over copyright in the age of the Internet, has not been conclusively settled. Copyright gives a powerful incentive to spur innovation, and people who create new apps and generate new ideas should be recognized for their work; our society would certainly be poorer both technologically and culturally without the existence of copyright laws. But the entire premise of copyright is predicated on a society with private ownership of commodities, and the Internet may very well be a public good. Once you post your relationship status on Facebook, or make a comment on an online forum, you have put forth information into a realm where it is accessible by anyone—the very definition of public. Nonetheless, not everyone has access to the Internet. It’s easy to forget that the majority of the world’s population has never used the Internet in their life. So can the Internet really be considered a public commodity, even with videos, articles and music uploaded to be viewed by a mass audience?
Where is the line drawn between private ownership and public use? Is the Internet a public good or not? Is it a right? Do governments have the power to control what sites are launched and what content is posted? Does the right to privacy exist in the age of the Internet, and if it does, who decides what to protect and how? How do we deal with cyber-attacks and other forms of online terrorism? We as a global society (itself only possible because of the Internet) have not yet come to grips with these questions.
These questions directly affect all of us. It’s the difference between an employer having the right to use your Facebook page in a job application. It’s the difference between being able to view videos on YouTube or read news articles for free or being charged. It’s the difference between developers creating the next Angry Birds or a cyber-wasteland devoid of innovation. All of them are difficult questions to answer and no one of us has all the answers. But as the Internet becomes ever more integrated into our lives, they are going to need to be answered. Each of them reflects a conflict of interests between any number of individuals that will be brought to the government to settle, whether in the courts or in Congress. Ultimately, only those with the strongest, most consistent voices will have their ideas for the future of the Internet carved into the legal code. If you want to see your vision for the future of the Internet prevail, the way to advance it is to force government to think about it. Otherwise, the Internet that results will be the result of someone else’s ideas and beliefs, not yours.