Freedom internet

The next installment of our guest blogger’s thought-provoking series on freedom….

After Freedom RulesFreedom MusicFreedom Art & Freedom Literature we now come to Part 5 which I’m calling Freedom Internet. As you probably guessed I’ve been covering elements of what most people call popular “culture” (music, art, literature). I think we have to accept that the internet has now become an element of culture in its impact and coverage. Not only is it an element of the culture here in our society but it also affects most cultures in societies across the world. Wikipedia has become the ubiquitous reference tool despite not having the reliability of the printed encyclopaedia. In the past, print had to be far more rigorous in what it published but today’s Wiki sites have only to say: “No ref” or “Citation needed” to indemnify themselves against claims of being conduits of false, confidential or potentially malicious info. And here lies a far bigger issue – unsubstantiated info appears alongside verified stuff with the result that people end up not being able to tell the difference.

The first thing to notice is that “the internet” or, as its altruistic creator Tim Berners-Lee called it, the World Wide Web, does not exist as a separate entity or area like which previous freedom subjects did. Remember his original idea was simply to enable scientists to share info & research without having to resort to paper, telecoms (telex, fax, at the time) & postal connections. There is no unique place called the internet. It exists only on computer chips, in telephone lines and on many different servers across the world. It is actually an open network of linked servers with various files which can be shared. It’s a bit like a library, not of books but of other libraries all across the world.

From that point of view what you see as “on the internet” may not be what someone else sees: take China, North Korea & other nations who severely restrict the access of their inhabitants to it. Their “internet” is not the same as mine or yours. One server owner may agree to content which others may not. These server owners then become the arbiters of what will or will not be released into the public domain. Quite simply they have now become the ones who, to put it mildly, “push the boundaries”. More bluntly they have become the source of much of today’s morality and the setters of standards apparently deemed acceptable. How so? Well think of it this way – to whom are they answerable? There is no ruling body for “the internet”, no high council (or committee) who decide the rightness or wrongness of putting a particular site up for public viewing. It is completely in their hands. The internet is an open network with no controls – except the consciences of the server providers! Comments made in print, film or artistic endeavour are more rigorously scrutinised because of the potential for libel claims. Where the internet is concerned, people can just “hide” behind made up names and identities.

The potential for criminal activity is greatly increased. I don’t suppose there are many of us who have not received an email telling us that upwards of $100,000,000 is lying in a bank account somewhere in Nigeria and that we are the only ones who can unlock this vast store of money. Why would you believe a totally anonymous stranger would want to give you a huge chunk of money? Most don’t; email deleted, move on, no worries. But, and it’s a big but some DID believe it and sent their bank details. Their accounts were emptied, no-one was caught; they suffered the complete embarrassment of being taken in by the scammers. Then there are the internet sellers who simply take the money and no product arrives or, if they’re buying, receive the product and stop the payment. And so it goes on. Starting up a proper trading company takes a lot more effort than sitting in front of a keyboard and conning people. Are we surprised so much of it goes on?

Then there are the “Munchausen Syndromers”. The internet has many forums for people with various illnesses and disorders. It’s an ideal breeding ground for attention seekers. A recent UK radio prog discussed the issue and interviewed people who had gone onto cancer sufferers’ web forums pretending to have cancer and how they were managing day-to-day. Not only was their condition fictitious but they often invented other family members: girlfriends, boyfriends, children to make their situation seem believable. (I think most people will agree that it’s one thing to pretend to like sport on a sport website forum but quite another to pretend to have a terminal disease.) People were befriended and some completely taken in by the person who was not ill at all just pretending they were. (LLM’s “Chat” blog from yesterday referred to it in para 3 without actually naming it.) There is a further condition known as Munchausen by proxy but we don’t have space to go into that one here. In the internet world Munchausen’s Syndrome has become known as MBI (Munchausen by Internet). Those duped by such people are (rightly) devastated to learn that they have been conned, sometimes out of money they offered to help a situation which really didn’t exist. How can the forums’ hosts check out everyone who joins them? They rely on the trust and truthfulness of those who join to give the site the credibility so that people can feel secure revealing details, often very personal, of their condition and their feelings about it.

In real life, meeting someone talking like this you would pick up a number of signals from their body language, facial expressions and the like. On the internet all these human interface reactions are not on show. You are, or you become, what you type because no-one can see you. Only the perceptive or the ones who’ve been through a similar experience and pick up on stuff that doesn’t ring true will see through the lies. That incidentally is how a number of these cancer phoneys were found out. Very soon after they take their details down, disappear and some admitted they just create a new identity and begin the whole process again.

Recent surveys in the UK highlighted the age at which kids admitted they had first viewed pornographic material on the internet. Some admitted seeing it between 10-12 years old and from that I think we could assume that they had done so at a younger age but were wary of confessing to that so they said an age that to them seemed acceptable. Is a button asking them to confirm their age going to deter them?

Further areas of intimidation or “cyber bullying” as it’s called have resulted in a number of suicides over the past few years here in the UK and I suspect in other countries as well. How can it happen? Simply because if one person wants to call another person names or say things about them which are untrue they can. Until a complaint is made any comment is allowed, it seems. Even then the damage can be done and taking the comment down does not reverse the effect on the person hurt.

Without an overall arbiter of web content we should not be surprised that things have gone rapidly downhill in the moral sphere as well as the practical. The genie is well and truly out of the bottle; closing the barn door will be no good, the horse has clearly bolted and we’re not going to catch it. But how many really want to catch it?

Imagine standing at a bus stop and a bus comes along but it has no destination on the front. Would you get on or would you ask the driver where it is going? Even if it’s going the right way would you like it if the route was decided by the passengers shouting out where they want it to go next and not by the bus company. If I travel from say Glasgow to London I will see signs along the way telling me, as I get nearer, that London is 400, 300, 200 and so on miles away. It’s there on a blue metal road sign at the side of the motorway. I know where I’m going and I know how far it is. As you’re reading this you’re obviously on the “internet bus” and probably got on some years ago. Are you just on to enjoy the ride? A Magical Mystery Tour? Perhaps serendipity? Or do you worry about where the bus is going? Will you get off if the bus starts going down a road you don’t like and get on one that doesn’t go that way? A different service provider for example.

The internet has done so much good in many different areas and undoubtedly is greatly beneficial in the realm of study & research, commerce, communications for families and so on. That is to be welcomed and applauded. However we will reap what we sow and sadly we’re seeing a lot of negatives. Whilst I can only raise a few pointers to the current situation I hope you can see that unless controls are introduced the whole thing will continue down the road of decline. Freedom on the internet has had very serious consequences for us all. In a way it is breaking down societal norms and the differences between societies because those with unrestricted access can see what others are doing or how they are behaving. They then press their governments for change and, if successful, their society and culture changes. But to what? – To be more like ours? Why should ours be better than theirs?

Perhaps I can finish with some crucial questions: “Where do you think we as individuals and society in general are heading in this very difficult area? Are we, in reality, just being led by the internet? Can you see any signs? Is freedom helping us get there?”

Now moment of truth! If you look in a real mirror you see what you really look like. If you could look into an “internet mirror” what would you see?

Are you who you are or are you what you type?

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2 responses to this post.

  1. Somewhat apposite post yesterday. Just today (14.6.12) on Radio 2 the question was asked on the Simon Mayo Drivetime Show (5-7pm) for the “homework spot” on his prog: “Where is the internet?” The guy who ended up answering it (the “expert” in the field) could have been reading exactly what I wrote.
    Also today the news announced that the gov’t is about to push through legislation to gain access to ordinary citizens’ records of internet activity. They particularly want access to social networking sites so they can see who is talking to whom particularly those who may be engaged in criminal activity or social unrest. Because it’s a massive job and very expensive they’re going to push the responsibility for keeping the records onto the service providers.
    Those controls I was writing about are a lot nearer than we all think.
    Don’t know about 1984 I think we’ll soon be moving well beyond. Any potential or actual authors out there want to write 2084 or even 2184? Real imagination required!! (Oxymoron there, if you spotted it.)

    Reply

  2. […] hope you’ve seen that each of the areas we have looked at (music, art, literature, internet) has its own problems with regard to freedom. However there will always be those who want more […]

    Reply

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