On the transformation of everyday culture in an era of liquid modernity

Some notes on Internet and media history

In history, media ecology, politics on December 4, 2007 at 12:53 pm

…an overview of some current issues in the online world, intended for the UG course in Media History and Politics, Goldsmiths College.

A worldwide communications network whose cables spanned continents and oceans, it revolutionised business practice, gave rise to new forms of crime, and inundated its users with a deluge of information. Romances blossomed over the wires. Secret codes were devised by some users, and cracked by others. The benefits of the network were relentlessly hyped by its advocates, and dismissed by the sceptics. Governments and regulators tried and failed to control the new medium. Attitudes to everything from newsgathering to diplomacy had to be completely rethought. Meanwhile, out on the wires, a technological subculture with its own customs and vocabulary was establishing itself. (Tom Standage, The Victorian Internet, p. 1)

Wireless telegraph, 1904

The telegraph = the Victorian Internet
Tom Standage argues that in the 19th century it was a common expectation that newspapers would be redundant, simply because news would be piped into people’s homes. Instead, the opposite happened – newspapers became increasingly important as they started reporting on the remote corners of the world, thanks to news agencies (Reuters etc.) which blossomed thanks to the telegraph.
The Internet has seen similar expectations, exaggerations and hype: in the 90s, ‘cyberculture studies’ was guilty of much of this, luckily cultural studies now treats the Internet more as a mundane technology, closely integrated with the everyday.
The Internet is not an “information superhighway,” it is, in many ways, a series of tubes, very much akin to telegraphy. Also, remember that the Internet is not a total chaos – it is closely managed through protocols, protocols which allow for a good degree of freedom. However this rather unrestricted freedom is now under threat:
As the tubes are getting congested, some argue for closely regulated “express lanes” (see the Net Neutrality debate below). Moreover, the tubes are getting monitored by governments (see the Data retention debate). Also, their function in aiding underground economies is not a simple anarchic free-for-all (see the BitTorrent debate).
Overall, we can see several tendencies on the Internet that resemble earlier developments in media history:
Net neutrality → compare with telephony, telegraphy, motorways etc
Copyright enforcement/IPRED → compare with the licensing laws for the radical press in 19th century Britain, where newspapers were forced to “clean up” their content in order to keep their license. These laws were later revoked, and replaced by a system of control where market forces and mass-industrialisation marginalised the radical press…
Data retention/censorship → compare with phone tapping, Stasi type supervision
The BitTorrent hydra → compare with the consolidation that happens in free markets, emergence of oligarchies

Net neutrality – an unregulated Internet or “express lanes” for proprietary content and services?
Many current arguments for “Quality of Service” imply that there should be dedicated “express lanes” for things like voice and real-time video, which require instantaneous, low-latency data streams. Big broadband providers like Verizon, Comcast, and AT&T mean that peer-to-peer applications like BitTorrent now flood the Internet, prompting alternate methods like bandwidth limits and priority-based Quality of Service for voice and video.
But this clashes with the principle of providers’ non-interference with what is communicated over their networks, the idea that the carrier remains neutral to its users.
The term “network neutrality” was coined only recently, but advocates argue that the concept existed in the age of the telegraph. In 1860, a US federal law subsidizing a coast-to-coast telegraph line stated that

…messages received from any individual, company, or corporation, or from any telegraph lines connecting with this line at either of its termini, shall be impartially transmitted in the order of their reception, excepting that the dispatches of the government shall have priority.

Will a “tiered Internet” mean that companies can exclude competitors and unwanted applications from their own “express lanes”?
Censorship is in technical terms a form of violation of net neutrality. Quoting Wikipedia:

Violations of the principle of network neutrality also occur in the censorship of political, “immoral” or religious material around the world. For example China and Saudi Arabia both filter content on the Internet, preventing access to certain types of websites. In the United Arab Emirates as of 2006, Skype was blocked.
Singapore has network blocks on more than 100 sites. In Britain, telecommunication companies block access to websites that depict sexually explicit images of children. In Norway some ISPs use a voluntary filter to censor websites that the police believe to contain what they believe are abuse images of young children. Germany also blocks foreign sites for copyright and other reasons. In America public institutions (e.g. libraries and schools), by law, block material that is related to the exploitation of children, and “obscene and pornographic” material. However, the network filters also block sites and material relating to women’s health, gay and lesbian rights groups, and sexual education for teenagers.
Worldwide, the Bittorrent application is widely given reduced bandwidth or even in some cases blocked entirely.
Worldwide, under heavy attack from spam email, many email servers no longer accept connections except from white-listed hosts. While few care about the rights of spammers, this means that legitimate hosts not on the list are often blocked.

Proponents of a “tiered Internet”:
• AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, Time Warner
and their lobby groups like Hands Off the Internet and NetCompetition.org
• Some Internet pundits (Bob Kahn)

Proponents of net neutrality:

• Most Internet pundits (Tim Wu, Lawrence Lessig, Tim Berners-Lee etc), invoking the argument that net neutrality/deregulation has been part of the Internet since its inception
• Large Internet companies like Amazon, eBay, Google, Microsoft
• Interest groups like savetheinternet.com

See previous blog post for further information.

IPRED – “ensuring the enforcement of intellectual property rights”
The IPRED directive is a two-part EU directive. The first part, IPRED1, is a “sanction directive” which would allow for copyright holders to collect traffic data from Internet Service Providers, like for example tracing IP addresses of individual users. The second part, IPRED2 (the Second Intellectual Property Rights Enforcement Directive), incriminates infringements of intellectual property rights. In other words, it opens up for further criminalising the distribution of copyrighted material. Under IPRED2, torrent indexes like The Pirate Bay could become criminalised for merely indexing (that is, not hosting any copyrighted material but providing comprehensive archives of links to torrent files). There is a vast grey zone here as to whether search engines would also fall under this distinction.
In short, IPRED criminalises those who merely link to copyrighted content. Aren’t Google thereby also criminals? A link is a string of text, it is a phrase. In other words, does banning links constitute banning free speech, and can pirate copying only be blocked through such measures?

Data retention – authorities archiving when, where and who you talk to, email or connect to (websites, FTP etc). This form of archiving is not intended to archive the actual phone calls, or emails (although the infrastructure for surveillance that would be required could potentially be used also for this purpose). Instead, what is monitored and archived are the traffic patterns, generating a trace of suspect individuals’ communication patterns. Quoting Wikipedia:

On 15 March 2006 the EU formally adopted Directive 2006/24/EC, on “the retention of data generated or processed in connection with the provision of publicly available electronic communications services or of public communications networks” The Directive requires Member States to ensure that communications providers must retain, for a period of between 6 months and 2 years, necessary data as specified in the Directive
• to trace and identify the source of a communication;
• to trace and identify the destination of a communication;
• to identify the date, time and duration of a communication;
• to identify the type of communication;
• to identify the communication device;
• to identify the location of mobile communication equipment.

For what purpose? Allegedly homing in on terrorists and crime syndicates – but are these the only uses for this extensive supervision? What about lesser crimes, like pirate copying, tax evasion etc?
With phone calls, everything but the content of the call is archived. But when distinguishing between content and metadata in an email, doesn’t that require the supervisor to have access to the whole email? And who is to say that the supervisor might not retain also what is said given that situation?

The issue of data retention, and the mass-scale wiretapping of cables that it would comprise, is a binary issue: Either the cables are plugged in, or they are not. Would it still be worth arguing for a plugging-in of such filters with reference to maintaining “national security”? What would the necessary safeguards be in that case? Could we trust them? Can such safeguards be exposed to political influence, and change over time? In Sweden, a debate regarding these very issues raged during the summer of 2008, in connection to the a debacle of whether the National Defence Radio Establishment (FRA) should be allowed to also spy on Internet and phone traffic (i.e. cable-based, digital signals).

See previous blog post for further information.

The BitTorrent “hydra”
P2p-based file-sharing is extremely decentralised, fully comparable to an “underground” or “alternative” economy. As such, it is completely deregulated if not anarchical, but ironically recent developments show an increasing consolidation.

The BitTorrent infrastructure is often likened to a hydra – if one head is cut off, two new ones will grow out. Yet some of these heads are disproportionally bigger and more influential than the other. Why? Essentially because of the convenience of economies of scale, where one comprehensive search engine is better than 14 very limited ones.
What’s the problem then? This top-heavy infrastructure is more vulnerable to legal clampdowns, and it is generally more monopolistic (say if The Pirate Bay started demanding charges etc). As with broadcasters or newspapers, small sites can specialize and cater for more niche interests.

See this more recent blog post for some of the problems arising when one “head”, in this case The Pirate Bay, gets to represent the whole “beast” as a whole.

  1. […] unrestricted file-sharing microcosm. It is one of the few real “faces” of an otherwise many-headed, nebulous phenomenon. It is one of those formations whose spokesmen, when lined up in court, are […]

  2. […] (2) The second thing that this story indicates is that file sharing should not be regarded a historical parenthesis, an anomaly or an extreme case of media history. In fact, this is how things very often “go” with new media. […]

  3. […] depending on the respective materiality of each medium, and the surrounding historical facts. But that is another […]

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