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Taming the Web, are we?

by Prasad Krishna last modified May 24, 2012 09:01 AM
Two decades after its advent changed our lives, the world wide web - as we know it - faces a grave threat. Not from governments alone, but also from tech companies seeking to play gatekeepers.

Sunil Abraham is quoted in this article by Javed Anwer published in the Economic Times on May 13, 2012

The /b/ section at is so extreme in nature that even web veterans squirm at the thought of going through it. Anyone can post virtually any picture here. Anonymously. It doesn't matter if the pictures are obscene , graphic or gory.

Yet, 4Chan, which was started by a 15-year-old in 2003, is an integral part of the world wide web. The large community at 4Chan mirrors the virtual world - lawless and anarchic in the traditional sense, highly innovative, funny and sometimes disturbing. Barry Newstead, chief global development officer of Wikimedia that manages Wikipedia, puts it succinctly. "The internet has been giving ordinary people the voice and the ability to contribute content and ideas and opinions. Sometimes we use it to create pictures of funny cats and sometimes it's the world's largest encyclopedia ," he says.

Until recently, it seems governments just noticed the funny cats. They left the web to its own devices. At the same time, the egalitarian ethos on which the web was founded - Tim Berners-Lee developed it and gave it away for free - kept realworld barriers, which corporations and people often put around their environment, away from it. In 2012, it looks like the honeymoon is over.

'Civilizing' the Net

Perhaps the problem is that, for all its perceived flaws, the internet has worked wonderfully well."Too well," says Jeff Jarvis, author of 'Public Parts' , a book on internet culture. It has allowed people to create Google, Facebook, Hotmail, WikiLeaks, Wikipedia and thousands of other websites and services that have changed lives. Last year Jarvis was in Paris, participating in e-G 8 called by then French president Nicholas Sarkozy. He heard the Frenchman's plans to"civilize" the web. "Nobody should forget governments are the only legitimate representatives of the will of the people in our democracies," said Sarkozy.

His sentiments are shared by politicians across the world, including in India. Just three days ago, Congress MP Shantaram Naik, aghast at the "filthy" comments on a website, said in the Rajya Sabha that the internet needs to be "purified" . Different politicians and governments have different reasons. But regulation is growing. In the last few years, governments across the world have proposed or enacted laws (see box) that aim to "civilize" the web.

Why the urgency? Is the internet broken? Jarvis says it is not. "The net is operating no differently today than it was a decade ago. But we see so many efforts to fix it - to regulate it under the cloak of privacy, piracy, decency, security, and even civility," he says. "I believe legacy institutions, including governments, are waking up to the extent of the net's disruptive force... they are trying to control the net and govern the change it causes."

Sunil Abraham, director of Centre for Internet and Society, says that in the last two years governments have doubled their efforts to control the web. "During the revolutions in Arab countries last year, protesters mobilized themselves through Twitter and Facebook. Then there are Wikileaks and Anonymous. This has made governments and politicians jittery," says Abraham.

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