The Internet–the land of the free–with its ever-growing influence, has become so inextricable to our lives that safety laws, restrictions and protection-oriented algorithms have begun to be implemented by many major sites in order to ‘keep the space safe for everyone;’ –Yes, even if that means alienating certain audiences to whom the freedom that characterized the internet in its early stages is uncompromisable in principle. Many are so romantically and ideologically tied to the early memories of internet that they don’t see the need for order and regulation, in fact they oppose it, believing that it should be left alone in self-regulation mode.
In its inception and its early years the internet’s freedom could be compared to the advantages of having many operative functions in a machine of any sort, and an ability to express oneself in verbal terms freely. There was no inclination to speak of their internet habits in spatial terms, as they are discussed today. That is because it was hard to conceive a piece of machinery as a ‘place’ in a time when the revolution of Social Media with social congregation as its central locus could not be foreseen. Thus, it would not have occurred to nobody then to argue that it should operate as its own country with no interference from state legislations.
Cyberspace was a place to escape life, and while the value of escapism cannot be extracted from its being, now it moreso resembles an escape to a different place (within the physical world), a different culture. The internet then existed in a space external to ‘the real world’: when one’s life conditions disfavoured her happiness, one could rely on the internet to procure a sense of freedom even if just to decompress from the suppressing conditions of the real world. This was possible because then the internet was a small part of life, not a congregation of more than half of the world population in a cyber realm. And although communication was from the start an integral part of the development of the internet as we know it today, the force with which it has infiltrated this industrial invention now, with an estimate of 3 billion users to be reached by 2020 could not have been foreseen has changed the nature of the internet.
The fact of the matter is, that due to its infiltration into basically every area of one’s life, the internet (aided especially by the social media) has established for itself a structural role in our society. Now surfing the web is not just a leisure activity, but a social arena (reflective of the real world, all of its logistic components and so much more) that is part of what we do everyday. It is a space in which all of life’s components are represented and function to some capacity. As a result, leaving the internet completely unregulated would be like saying the laws of the state apply to everyone, but the people whose first name is Bill: arbitrary and in a sense erroneous (with regard to what state legislations hope to achieve: an orderly functioning society).
Moreover, the internet can no longer be considered isolated from the real world, because so much of life manifests there and consequently reflects back into the world. Understandably, we have recently seen many countries implement state laws that supervise internet behaviour and restrict it in one way or another. The laws are not made for the inhabitants of the free land of the internet, but for citizens of the real world. That said, the way laws are created for the internet today are severely flawed. That is part because it is something undocumented that we are still learning to deal with, but also because the jurisdictions of the world cannot unanimously establish a division of power between competencies.
The problem becomes manifold, when it is no longer safety that is at hand, and laws or rules are set by companies themselves for no other purpose than to protect their personal interest (which is almost always financial, and if not directly, it is tied to the company’s revenue nonetheless). In these cases, the freedom of the internet should be brought to the table of discussion and used against mercenary tendencies because the freedom of the internet today is not most endangered by governments and courts (as they have no personal interest here, when it comes to the internet at least, we can trust that they really have our best interest at heart, unless of course some head of state has stocks at google).
Image courtesy of Flickr user Jurgen Appelo
Recently, Youtube came out with an announcement that their ad policy had undergone an upkeep and they warned their users that the revenue they get from Youtube’s placed ads might change. The reason, they claim, is that the advertisers have complained that their values have been put on videos that “was not aligned with their values,” meaning that they were placed on videos that display “extremism” and “hate speech” (The New York Times). The advertisers themselves, are certainly right to choose where their efforts are placed, especially considering the fact that their goal is the improvement of their brand, which is indisputably harmed when appearing even near controversial content of this sort that even raises the question of whether or not those videos should remain on youtube in the first place. So why isn’t Youtube taking more of a stand against the phenomenon of hate speech itself, rather than merely trying to eliminate a symptom that arises from it.
But on the other hand, there is another matter of concern: the means to implement rules or laws are companies taking and what do they determine as a result. The New York Times, reported recently that the channel of David Pakman, who has something of a news show on Youtube has lost most of the revenue it generates from ads because they had been pulled out of his videos. Did his videos incite hatred or violence against anyone? No, in fact he discusses topics “no more controversial than the programming typically found on CNN or the local news. In fact, because his show is also broadcast over the radio, it adheres strictly to FCC content rules.” Amanda Hees writes. Even if it weren’t so, few people would say that the discussion of something ‘controversial’ (if it is not hate speech by legal terms) warrants to be downgraded to 6 cents a day. Who is making these decisions? Algorithms. Unless he is explicitly inciting hatred or violence, why should a Youtuber who lives from these ads be punished by an algorithm, especially by a company that was founded upon the expression of ideas freely and without the red tape that surrounds traditional media.
Should the values that they built Youtube upon be sacrificed for financial benefit? Well, the real question would start with ‘can.’ Can Youtube compromise the values they hold and the relationship they have with the content creators that make it possible for the continuation of the site, and get away with it.