From humble roots in military and university research projects to ubiquity today, the Internet has become a place of opportunity and outlaws. The list of upended industries is added to frequently, and the rap sheet of hackers, online bullies, and mass surveillance agencies grows longer by the day.
Precisely “how” the Internet has facilitated this cataclysmic change is not an easy discussion in and of itself. Easily one could, and many have, discuss for months the development and adoption of the technical protocols that compose the Internet.
But instead, the focus of this piece will be on a single factor that has been a multiplier in the impact of the Internet in comparison to every previous technological revolution: no more gatekeepers.
A Technological Revolution, Different in Kind
The advent of new technology has often led to societal changes. The Gutenberg press unleashed inexpensively replicable written word. Radio and television technologies brought audio and video to anyone’s living room or car. Yet with each of these technologies, the decisions of what books to publish or TV shows to produce were (and still are) made by a small number of executives at a handful of large companies.
The old media gatekeepers long enacted their will upon what ideas and media the public could ever see. Sure, a musician could make a few mixtapes to give to their friends, and an activist could type up some pamphlets to distribute, but without backing of the gatekeepers, their ideas and art could not be distributed very far.
With the Internet however, no longer can gatekeepers exact near total control over the dissemination of written word and media.
- Anyone can purchase a domain name, rent server space, and host a website with any content or ideas they please, open for consumption by anyone around the world.
- Artists can now share their music and films at will on platforms like YouTube, Vimeo, or SoundCloud.
- Kitchen table philosophers and writers can now pontificate to an audience from their own blog.
- Authors can self-publish with eBooks on Kindle or Kobo. They can even use print-on-demand services to sell printed books on Amazon or their own website with no inventory costs.
The sharing and admiration of all art forms has been democratized.
Anyone can create. All can consume, anywhere, at low cost.
Free Will Has a Cost
And yet, the lack of gatekeepers is a two-edged sword. The Internet also serves as the portal to a free flow of pornography of every disturbing flavour, communities that foster hateful ideologies, and marketplaces like Silk Road that make the acquisition of drugs, weapons, stolen goods, and sex slaves of every age, as easy as searching for a new iPhone case on Amazon.
Rather than being a utopia that could bring out the better angels of humanity, or at least simply entertain the masses better, the Internet has become a dark mirror to the full beauty and depravity of human nature.
But, if anyone can create a website for intentions good or bad, then what can be done? One solution would be to aggregate the most popular content on a single website. Then, with the trust of the public, the owners of that website could enforce policies for decency on their filtered portal into the Internet.
And this is exactly what Google Search, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Amazon have done. Search results, ecommerce, and media have become intensely centralized on very few platforms.
For most users, this has been of great benefit, a few uniform interfaces to access most things online on fast servers: an Amazon interface for buying, a YouTube interface for watching, a Facebook interface for keeping tabs on friends, family, and celebrities.
And yet with this consolidation of users, content, and business comes the growing evidence that something is rotten in the state of Denmark.
Though technology executives pontificate frequently about the importance of their role in protecting the free speech and expression rights of their users, their opaque actions to police their platforms tell a different story.
YouTubers fear demonetization. Facebook is accused of censoring users and aiding foreign government censorship in prosecution of their citizens. Google censors search results on demand of governments. Amazon sows confusion with changing removal policies…
More and more content creators and platform users are questioning the arbitrary rulings to block, shadow ban, and demonetize subjectively innocuous content and users without explanation or chance for appeal.
Thus, the uncertainty around new rules from gatekeepers leaves the future of the Internet rather insipid. Living in fear of their channel being blocked or demonitized understandably leaves many YouTubers with a bleak outlook. Perhaps, the discussion on the role of platform owners to serve as their own gatekeepers may lead to more transparency with changed policies or new appeal processes.
Yet, maybe many won’t care at all recognizing that having some gatekeepers isn’t a sign of the end times. Or, given the slow-moving nature of the entrenched platforms, continued irritation of users may open an opportunity for new platforms to succeed with more transparent policies that better align with users and content creators.
Which platforms and sanitization policies should live on? What review processes could be more constructive than the current pseudo legal framework of platform policing? Are less gatekeepers a risk worth taking in order to bring forward more voices, that we may hear the marginalized, alongside the fringe? Is life better with gatekeepers to help maintain decency?
As more content and traffic finds home on Google Search, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, millions of users will need to decide with their clicks whether to welcome or fight the return of the gatekeepers.
Written for CS492 Social Implications of Computing course at University of Waterloo.