Opinion: Do social networking sites support democracy and the Open Society?

The obvious answer is, yes. But do they?

Let’s track this idea back.

In 1979 Christopher Evans published “The Mighty Micro”. His bold and prophetic book looked at the impact of the microchip on society over the next 10-15 years.

In the same year, 1979, I wrote my first computer program on a teletype terminal and stored it on paper tape. Some desk top computers had been built, but they were very uncommon.

The chapter that really inspired me when I first read it was the one on Political and Social Issues. He predicted that the 1980s and 1990s would be dominated by “virtually infinite data transmission”

“This kind of development will encourage lateral communication – the spread of information from human being to human being across the base of the social pyramid. Characteristically this favours the kind of open society … the opposite effect on autocracies who like to make sure that all information is handled very firmly downwards”

“The decline of communism is one possibility”, he added.

He predicted that viewers would be able to watch a debate on a political issue on television programme and then vote on it, though maybe he wasn’t thinking in terms of voting Lembit Öpik off I’m a Celebrity.

All this alerted me back then to the essentially subversive nature of Internet. It cannot be controlled, any more than human speech can be controlled. It allows peer to peer communication. It lies beneath the radar.

An open Internet is essential to maintain democracy in an open society. At least, that was the vision of the early pioneers of the academic uses of the Internet.

And it was Tim Berners-Lee’s vision too, when, in 1990, he made the Internet accessible to everyone through the World Wide Web.

By 1990 PCs were ubiquitous, mobile phones were being used by smart young business types, and I found myself developing expert systems using the glorious user interface on an Apple Mac.

Last week, Tim Berners-Lee published an essay in Scientific American to mark the 20th anniversary of his invention of the Web. It was entitled “Long Live the Web: A Call for Continued Open Standards and Neutrality”

He writes: “The Web evolved into a powerful, ubiquitous tool because it was built on egalitarian principles and because thousands of individuals, universities and companies have worked, both independently and together as part of the World Wide Web Consortium, to expand its capabilities based on those principles.”

He then goes on to examine some of the ways in which the principles of universality and net neutrality are being threatened.

Universality is defined thus: “when you make a link, you can link to anything”. You can put anything on the Web, any type of data, any content, any language, and you can access anything on the Web.

Universality is possible because of the open standards that Tim Berners-Lee invented. The first of these is the Universal Resource Identifier (now more usually referred to as URL – locator). The other standards are http as a method of transferring data, and html as the code for web pages.

He is worried that universality is being undermined by a number of sites that do not use the Web’s open standards.

He points out that social networking sites capture your data and “reuse the information to provide value-added service—but only within their sites”. “Each site is a silo” he says ”walled off from the others.” That happens because each piece of information lacks a URL. “The more this kind of architecture gains widespread use, the more the Web becomes fragmented, and the less we enjoy a single, universal information space.”

The other principle he writes about is net neutrality, which is fundamental to the survival of the Web. This is a policy issue Liberal Democrats must consider.

Net neutrality is the idea that all Internet traffic should be treated equally. It could be violated if, for example, an ISP made it easier for you to connect to some websites rather than others, or to download some materials more quickly than others.

A recent threat has come from Google and Verizon, who have suggested that net neutrality should not apply to mobile phone–based connections. As Berners-Lee points out, many people in rural areas across the world, especailly in developing nations, only have access to the Internet through mobile phones.

He says: “A neutral communications medium is the basis of a fair, competitive market economy, of democracy, and of science. Debate has risen again in the past year about whether government legislation is needed to protect net neutrality. It is. Although the Internet and Web generally thrive on lack of regulation, some basic values have to be legally preserved.”

I’ll end with Tim Berners-Lee’s own words:

“Why should you care? Because the Web is yours. The Web is also vital to democracy, a communications channel that makes possible a continuous worldwide conversation. The Web is now more critical to free speech than any other medium. It brings principles established in the U.S. Constitution, the British Magna Carta and other important documents into the network age: freedom from being snooped on, filtered, censored and disconnected.”

In May, Mary Reid stood down as a councillor in the Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames after serving for 13 years. She blogs at www.maryreid.org.uk

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3 Comments

  • Absolutely, Mary! (On behalf of the the almost 12000 members of the Fb group ‘Students Against Tuition Fees’!

  • Andrew Suffield 6th Dec '10 - 10:26pm

    It’s also worth noting that these properties of the internet cannot be defeated. They’re not design accidents, they are fundamental properties of technology and information.

    What can change is that they can be made harder to use, by throwing up legal and technical roadblocks. Society would then be divided into those with the technical aptitude to use these facilities (or trusted friends who do), and those who do not. This would not go very well.

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