Saturday, 13 August 2011

Tightening the Web

David Cameron has promised to “do whatever it takes to restore law and order and to rebuild our communities”, which may include a law to permit removal of face masks and plans to block access to social media such as Facebook, Twitter and Blackberry messaging. He said in Parliament:
    "Mr Speaker, everyone watching these horrific actions will be stuck by how they were organised via social media. Free flow of information can be used for good. But it can also be used for ill. And when people are using social media for violence we need to stop them. So we are working with the Police, the intelligence services and industry to look at whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality."
Facebook has already replied to Cameron by announcing that it has "already actively removed several 'credible threats of violence' related to the riots across England" but the major social networks are unlikely to comply fully until Cameron can introduce new legislation, which will expose him to widespread opposition on grounds of freedom of speech. At the time of the Wikileaks affair last year I wrote a PC Pro column predicting the imminence of such regulation, and I'm publishing an edited extract of its argument here, since I know that many of my political friends don't read that nerdy-but-excellent journal.

Adapted from the Idealog column in PC Pro issue 197 March 2011:
At the Web '10 conference in Paris this April, we heard European telecom companies demanding a levy on vendors of bandwidth-guzzling hardware and services like Google, Yahoo!, Facebook and Apple. These firms currently make mega-profits without contributing anything to the massive infrastructure upgrades needed to support the demand they create. Content providers at the conference responded "sure, as soon as you telcos start sharing your subscription revenues with us". It's shaping up to be an historic conflict of interest between giant industries, on a par with cattle versus sheep farmers or the pro and anti-Corn Law lobbies.

But of course there are more parties involved than just telcos versus web vendors. We users, for a start. Then there are the world's governments, and the content-providing media industries. In today's earnest debates about Whither The Webbed-Up Society, no two journalists seem to agree how many parties need to be considered, so I'll put in my own bid, which is five. 

My five categories of player are Users, Web Vendors, Governments, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and Telecom Companies (Telcos), each of whose interests conflict with every other, thus connecting them in a "pentacle of conflict" so complex it defies easy predictions. The distinction is basically this: users own or create content and consume bandwidth; web vendors own storage (think Amazon servers and warehouses, Google datacenters) and consume bandwidth; telcos own wired and wireless fabrics and sell bandwidth; and poor old ISPs are the middle-men, brokering deals between the other four. 

Note that I lump in content providers, even huge ones like Murdoch's News International, among users, because they own no infrastructure and merely consume bandwidth. And they're already girded for war, for example in the various trademark law-suits against Google's AdWords. What will actually happen, as always in politics, depends on how these players team up against each other, and that's where it starts to look ominous. 

At exactly the same time as these arguments are surfacing, the Wikileaks affair has horrified all the world's governments and almost certainly tipped them over into seriously considering regulating the internet. Now it's one of the great clichés of net journalism that the net can't be regulated: it's self-organising, re-routes around obstacles etc, etc, blah, blah. However the fact is that governments can do more or less anything, up to and including dropping a hydrogen bomb on you (except where the Rule of Law has failed, where they can do nothing). For example they can impose taxes that completely alter the viability of business models, or else stringent licensing conditions, especially on vulnerable middle-men like the ISPs.

Before Wikileaks the US government saw a free Web as one more choice fruit in its basket of "goodies of democracy" to be flaunted in the face of authoritarian regimes like China. After Wikileaks, my bet is that there are plenty of folk in the US government who'd like to find out more about how China keeps the lid on. The EU is more concerned about monopolistic business practices and has a track record of wielding swingeing fines and taxes to adjust business models to its own moral perspective. 

All these factors point towards rapidly increasing pressure for effective regulation of the net over the next few years, and an end to the favourable conditions we presently enjoy where you can get most content for free if you know where to look, and can get free or non-volume-related net access too. The coming trade war could very well see telcos side with governments (they were after all best buddies for almost a century) against users and web vendors, extracting more money from both through some sort of two-tier Web that offers lots of bandwidth to good payers but a mere trickle to free riders. And ISPs are likely to get it in the neck from both sides, God help 'em. 

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