Friday, May 7, 2021

Who owns the Information Highway? Here's what they were debating in 1994.

While cleaning out old files and folders from my garage I came across a fat folder of articles I'd photocopied during the early days of the Internet.  In about 30 seconds I surmised that there were some good seeds for stimulating those little grey cells we use to process ideas. The very first of these was an article by Kevin Cooke and Dan Lehrer of The Nation that appeared in the January/February 1994 edition of the Utne Reader. The piece was titled Who will own the information highway? 

The authors begin by sharing a story about Croatia, with a callout that reads, "Direct access to information is 'inherently politically subversive,'' says one longtime Nethead." The Croatian, who maintains a bulletin titled Zagren Diary, said his only link to the outside world is via email. (The article calls it electronic mail.) Kat explains that the Croatian government owns all the media there and they are prosecuting a group of journalists for treason.

The authors then note how the Russian Internet became a source of information about what was taking place during the 1991 coup. Likewise, students in China used the Internet to get the word out about what was happening there during Tiananmen Square. Reporters in China were gagged, but online newsgroups had the stories.

* * * 

The article segues into the power of the Internet, "the most powerful computer network on the planet because it is the biggest." How big? (And this is hilarious.) "It encompasses 1.3 million computers with Internet addresses used by up to 30 million people in more than 40 countries."

Can you imagine what they would have said if told that a single company in less than 30 years would have 2.8 million active monthly users by 2021? The authors correctly predicted that technology would be developed to make it easier for people who weren't nerds to get online. 

They also correctly put a spotlight on an issue that is still unresolved today. Who should control the Internet? Some argued that the Internet should belong to private businesses. The authors had issues with this. "By giving the private sector unregulated and monopolistic control over the Net's electronic connections, the government would in effect allow megacorporations like AT&T and Time Warner, who own the cable lines and manage what flows through them, to call the shots in the future."

Mega-big... like Apple (controlling what can be downloaded from iTunes) and Amazon (free to ban books that are not PC) and Google (free to harvest more data about you than you knew even existed) and Facebook (ditto).

In 1994 there were many voices raised expressing concern over censorship, and others expressing concerns about users being monitored. It doesn't seem like things have really changed.

The article ends with a confident declaration that issues related to access, pricing, censorship and redress of grievances would be resolved within five years. 27 years later and I'm personally a little less than optimistic.

* * * 

Hard to believe that Amazon was just a twinkle in its founder's eye back then, that Google would not appear til five years later, and that Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg was only a 10 year old kid at that time. Like, who would have thunk it?

C'est la vie.

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