The MW files: Anarchy to Nanny State in One Step

(First published in Man’s World, 2001)

Why are you reading this when you could be on the Internet right now? Cyberspace is marvellous, incredible, awe-inspiring. Here, you’ll find the latest update on cancer cures, companies that urge you to click on their logos so that they can give away vast sums to worthy charities, a diet that’s actually guaranteed to work. As more and more doors open to you, you’ll make friends; you’ll make millions.

Why are you reading a column about something as pernicious as the Internet? Cyberspace is evil, antisocial, the devil’s work. Here, you’ll find computer viruses ready to lobotomise your hard drive, hackers salivating as they think of the shopping spree your stolen credit card numbers will fund, hate sites that preach death to Jews, women, Hindus, small children, Muslims, pets. As you’re sucked deeper into its wicked maw, you’ll lose friends, family, money, your sense of your self.

Somewhere in between these two extremes, or so a bare handful who constitute rational users of the Net like to believe, lies the Net itself. An increasingly beleaguered virtual kingdom caught between devout evangelists and equally passionate sceptics. One markets the world wide web as a panacea for all human ills, a haven where even misfits will find their own level; the other excoriates the Net as the ultimate bastion of human depravity.

It’s almost redundant to say that both are wrong. Perhaps the most useful way to see the Web is as a bizarre mirror of the real world, complete with dark alleys as well as pretty scenery. But both sides come together over one issue: they want control over this space, one way or another.

On the surface, controlling the Web is an odd idea. Here, after all, is a labyrinthine network of human minds connected to each other by the oddest of things–loneliness, a shared taste for blue-veined cheese, book clubs, depravity, a passion for online chess, curiosity, a yen for pipe-collecting, intellectual engagement, a love of role-playing games, sexual boredom, a compulsive need to bargain-shop. Who would want to control all of this? Who would be able to control all of this, for that matter? The answer to the first question is, you’d be surprised. The answer to the second, I suspect, is nobody unless Bill Gates gets together with seven of the major world governments, General Electric, Proctor & Gamble, and chucks in a few crackpot religious leaders for good measure. Here’s the essential shortlist:

Governments: Silicon Valley has a well-documented aversion to the g-word, and with some reason. In the recent past, the Chinese government has banned Chinese whisperers from referring to the state or using the phrase “state secrets” in chatrooms. The US government drafted obscenity laws that make it illegal for any American citizen to say, write, or perchance think, the word “shit” among others on the Net in a context outside the purely biological. The Iran head honchos who’ve thought about the Net at all have made it clear that citizens caught surfing sites that show any female skin below the knee will have very nasty things done to their innards. The Indian government, not to be outdone, will have your PC impounded by any officer of the rank of DCP or above if they think you think you might be on the verge of committing a cyber-crime.

All of them, if you think about it, are attempting merely to treat the Net as though it were no more than an extension of the real world. That’s a bit like treating a tiger as though it were a housecat and asking it to come in from the jungle and use the litterbox. They have ample support from both evangelists and doomsayers. Evangelists for the Net tend to ask governments to shut down those nasty porn sites and legislate paedophile prowlers out of chat rooms, so that the Net can be the shiny, happy place it’s supposed to be. Doomsayers want government tanks to rumble through cyberspace, shooting down all opposition before it infects the real world.

It takes something like the Havenco experiment to catch governments unaware. Havenco is a small company set up by a bunch of cypherpunks–guys who believe that cryptography and encoding data is one way to preserve it from both governmental intervention as well as snoopers, and therefore to preserve free speech in the long run. They intend to start up an offshore haven for information on the small and somewhat disputed principality of Sealand, an island and abandoned British air force base off the coast of England. Sealand, incidentally, is ruled by King Roy–a former army officer who set up his own principality several years ago and has since issued passports, throwing legal counsel in the UK government completely off balance. Havenco is treading with care–they’ve already announced that their services will not be available to spammers or child pornographers, for instance–in order to offer maximum freedom with minimum offence. So far, the response from governments worldwide has been cautious confusion, compounded by the fact that Havenco intends to set up shop on other island-principalities eventually, in order to minimise the chance of being literally blown out of the water.

Big business:

It’s not just Microsoft we’re talking about here. If you’ve been a habitual surfer of the Net over the last five years, you will not have failed to notice that the dotcom wave has partially submerged all the rest–the dotorgs and the altnets that formed the first homesteads on the www. They’re still there, of course, the loonybin homepages and the earnest Hemingways-in-the-making and the serious cybercultch thinkers, but they’re not that easy to find any more. Regardless of whether you’re looking for Klingon linguists or recipes for the nostalgic NRI or data on the interiors of the White House, the search engines inexorably throw up more and more dotcoms, and less and less of Janaki Public’s online musings.

In 1996, former Grateful Dead dude John Perry Barlow, who’s also one of the fiercest proponents of online autonomy, posted his famous (or infamous, depending on perspective) Cyberspace Independence Declaration. One of the more interesting metaphors he used was drawn, prophetically, from the language of big business: “Your increasingly obsolete information industries would perpetuate themselves by proposing laws, in America and elsewhere, that claim to own speech itself throughout the world. These laws would declare ideas to be another industrial product, no more noble than pig iron. In our world, whatever the human mind may create can be reproduced and distributed infinitely at no cost. The global conveyance of thought no longer requires your factories to accomplish.”

He was speaking, then, of Big Brother in the form of government; he might well have been describing Big Business and the second wave of Cocacolonisation, this time directed at the Net. That same year, in reaction to Barlow’s Declaration, Salon writer Scott Rosenberg pointed out a basic flaw in the assumption that the Net was strong enough to resist all institutional pressure. He used Benjamin Barber’s McWorld versus Jihad analysis of the post-Cold War world as a preview of what could happen to the Net: “What mujahideen would hesitate to ban alt.binaries.pictures.erotica? What multinational would mind if information were a little less free?”

Sometimes, of course, the multinationals don’t have it all their way. Shortly after its acquisition of Hotmail, Microsoft floated a questionnaire to all Hotmail users asking, in part, if they’d be prepared to pay for a safer, better email service. The answer was a flat negative; and since, unlike in the real world, Microsoft had no monopoly over free email services, it had to abandon dreams of charging Hotmail users even a token amount.

But increasingly, as big business charges on to the Net, the shape of the online world as we knew it is changing, the contours of large chunks of cyberspace melding down into something approaching McWorld. Take Salon (www.salonmagazine.com) itself. Once one of the finest, edgiest e-zines on the Net, it gradually succumbed to the logic of page views–the number of times Net users access a particular article or screen. The problem with that logic is that you’ll always have more people wanting to know why Brittany Spears’ butt is flat than the number who want to know about Angkor Vat. It doesn’t necessarily mean, of course, that in the cosmic scheme of things Ms Spear’s butt rates higher than Angkor Vat–but try telling that to the bean-counters.

Special-interest groups:

The sub-categories here include mad scientists and insane world potentates, both of whom tend to fall in love with the idea of controlling the web-wide world (Slogan: “If you’ve got them by the keyboards, their hearts and minds will follow.”) But if you think about it, the real danger in this category is me and you. I, for instance, am a cat-lover–own one, feed six and am on chatting terms with many more. So if someone put up a 10 Ways to Skin A Cat (And What To Do With The Remains), I might, logically, want it shut down. On a more serious level, there’s good reason for feminists to argue that DIY rape sites should be closed down, or parents to argue that sites that traffic in child pornography should be yanked.

If you extend the logic of offense further, however, be warned: here be dragons. The Bengali community, a year or so ago, objected violently to a mildly humorous, extremely scurrilous site called www.bokachoda.com, which is one URL that I’m not going to translate for the benefit of non-Bong readers. The site was eventually shut down, and the presiding genius behind it found himself in a great deal of trouble. In India alone, I can dream up scenarios where pro-Hindu right wing proponents would demand that any other Indian site conflicting with their agenda be brought to a halt, while liberals would demand to know why their cyberspace was being polluted by bigots, to use just one example.

Elsewhere, the Taliban might argue that all sites that encourage women’s liberation are offensive to their philosophy, Africans might demand that book sites refrain from selling copies of that erstwhile, pre-political correctness classic, Little Black Sambo. Amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com were told recently by Holocaust survivors that it was unacceptable for them to list Hitler’s Mein Kampf among their books. These trends, in my humble opinion, are far more pernicious than the clumsy attempts of governments to control the content of the Net.

So what rough beast will emerge at last from the chaos? Being merely a Net geek, as opposed to a full-fledged cyberguru, I cannot see the shape of the future. I’d argue that in the end, the Net’s too slippery to be lassoed, its frontiers too broad. But then an uneasy metaphor comes back to me, that old favourite dictum about cyberspace being the final frontier. History teaches that the pioneers of the American frontier roughly displaced the natives, enjoyed a brief, heady spell of untrammelled freedom, and then became a Nation. Now the land of the free has laws that require microwave manufacturers to post labels urging owners not to dry their pets off inside the ovens, that legislate the correct temperature at which a cup of coffee should be served to a customer, that bring political correctness to children’s books. I wonder if that’s the way the Net will eventually go–from anarchic realm to nanny state in one generation.

Nilanjana S Roy

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