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Web 3.0: Rise of the Gatekeepers

February 21, 2011

People have talked a lot recently about the impact of blogging on traditional journalism. This has become quite a topic in the small but perfectly-formed world of science blogs. These blogs offer the would-be science writer an easy way to have their writing read by others. They present a new platform for informed peer debate, and offer a way for non-scientific citizens to enter into meaningful dialogue with science practitioners. Dylan DePice presents a good overview of these aspects here.

In all of this ‘citizen-journalist’ web 2.0 euphoria, we can easily imagine a Net future where the old commercial elites have crumbled. Where people are free to publish, debate and consume whatever they wish, whenever they wish. Where everybody has equality of access to important news content. Where Stewart Brand’s famous cry that “information wants to be free!” is fully realised.

Yet developments now taking place behind the doors of Big Tech, Big Media and your Internet Service Provider may make the Web 3.0 Internet a lot less “free” than we’ve previously known it…

In the last few weeks, two seemingly unconnected issues have been raised in tech media – one affecting Internet access, the other regarding Internet media publishing. Both of these issues are, in my opinion, part of a creeping trend that seeks to re-frame Net structure and Net content as a privately owned and regulated commercial entity. This may have significant impact on a user’s ability to read, watch and comment on online information in future.

The first issue relates to the way we access the Internet. Traditionally, Internet Service Providers have performed the role of a neutral gatekeeper – taking our money and plugging us into the global network through their server’s ‘door’. This model has expanded to embrace the mobile and tablet computer era. A key aspect of this relationship is that ISPs don’t discriminate about the Internet content we have access to. Basically, if we pay our money, then every website out there has equal status as content. Data is downloaded to our devices just the same, regardless of where it came from. It doesn’t matter if the content is from a multi-national bank, a file-sharing torrent or a private science blog. That isn’t the gatekeeper’s business. They just take their entrance money and open the door. There are no back-room deals between the ISP and content providers which guarantee that one person’s information is given priority over someone else’s. This means that we choose the information that’s important to us, not anybody else. This cherished concept is popularly known as Net Neutrality. Acclaimed founders of the Internet like Tim Berners-Lee and Vint Cerf are strong advocates of this approach.

Yet recently this concept has been challenged. Barry Collins, writing in PC Pro Magazine, reports that UK ISPs are keen to discard Net neutrality in today’s high-bandwidth, multimedia Internet. ISPs argue – with some justification – that Net data hasn’t been ‘neutral’ for years. Providers frequently resort to ‘traffic shaping’ at busy times – prioritising certain types of web data over others to prevent congestion. But now they want to become more proactive in their shaping– cutting deals with specific content providers to ensure that their data is guaranteed priority. On one level, this sounds sensible. One could argue that big bandwidth hogs like iPlayer or YouTube should pay the ISP some of the cost of delivering their content to the user. Yet the ISP idea goes further. Certain content providers could pay for exclusivity as part of their deal – effectively cutting out a rival’s content on that ISP’s server. So one broadcaster or publisher might be able to stop an ISP’s users from seeing something that they don’t want them to see – even if those users wanted to see it. This isn’t exactly the spirit of the Web we’ve become accustomed to.

The second issue concerns the future of media publishing. Once upon a time, journalists wrote for newspapers and magazines, people paid for them, and the adverts inside them paid everybody’s wages. But for years now, print journalism has stared like a rabbit in headlights as the Internet has roared down the highway towards them. The first reaction of old media was to get online, and hope that by offering some of its content for free, the casual surfer would also buy into the print version. But as the Web grew, the press found itself with a Net audience that had become used to free content, and an ad market that had abandoned ink for silicon. Those printing presses were now an expensive burden. To make things worse, the Web had allowed users to pick only the articles they wanted, aggregating news items from multiple sources. So a hard-earned media brand – far from being strengthened by its web presence – risked disappearing altogether in a mashed-up, Google-ised world. If big media titles were to survive, they needed a new business model – and a way to re-impose control over their brand “experience”.

Enter the iPad, and the bright new age of portable media devices. These machines offer an opportunity for publishing media to take back some control over their content in a well-presented, easy-to-read viewing format. It’s easy to hold, and pages can be laid-out aesthetically. Most important of all, the people who build the market-leading devices have a taste for ‘controlling the user experience’. So content on these devices is strongly regulated by the manufacturer, promising a clean and safe way to protect copyright and deliver a brand.  This has been leapt upon by the likes of Rupert Murdoch as the potential saviour of print journalism.

But there is a catch – as the print industry discovered last week. The computer firms that own this new market are seeking to dictate the way media is purchased online, and who reads it. Apple and Google – the two leading players – have announced terms for media payments and subscriptions. They want to take a cut of media profits for access to their devices and user payment systems. And the media doesn’t like it. But – like the music industry before them – do they have a choice? If they don’t pay up and do as these new gatekeepers want, will they be left behind in the new generation of computing?

So – two gatekeeping issues. One concerning the companies that control the way we gain access to the Internet – the other concerning the companies that control the new devices and software that will dominate the way we view Internet content in future. Both parties have their roots in computing structure – but both now want to control the flow of Internet information. What might this mean for future Net users – and the citizen journalists who speak for them?

Let’s take a couple of examples. Imagine that there is a media mogul who owns a large network of television and print media outlets throughout the world. This mogul adopts a political policy for their media that aligns the network with politicians strongly opposed to action on climate change. Meanwhile, a collection of science blogs operating from a site like WordPress present arguments and evidence that expose the mogul’s stance as erroneous and politically-motivated.  This media mogul now decides to pay the leading ISPs to take the mogul’s web content – on condition that these pesky blogs are removed from the server. Suddenly the mogul’s climate scepticism can be consumed in glorious high-speed broadband while the opposing blogs disappear from user’s devices.

Or let’s say that these new portable devices achieve their likely potential and become the de-facto computing standard for the Internet of the future. These computers – for the first time – have both their hardware and content controlled by a few key gatekeepers. One day an enterprising journalist discovers that one of these gatekeepers is seriously polluting a manufacturing site in the developing world. Science blogs produce evidence to support this accusation. The gatekeeper calls the journalist’s publication in for a little chat. Suddenly the journalist is told to drop the story, and the blogging website has its specialised reading software removed from the device’s store on a technicality.

Fanciful? Maybe. But the problem with allowing powerful gatekeepers to control the Internet content we consume is that it becomes too easy and profitable to manipulate the landscape of global comment. Old cliché it may be, but information really is power. And those who get control of it tend to abuse it sooner or later. Net Neutrality of content and devices is – for me – a vital element in ensuring that Web 3.0 remains a place where opinion, evidence and accountability thrive.

If the gatekeepers are allowed to rise too far, then the Internet – the greatest democratic tool in history – may begin to fall.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. February 21, 2011 6:06 pm

    Down with gatekeepers (before they arise)? Not sure we can get a protest started on that one though, despite its importance. The development of the idea will probably be fuelled by those who think ISPs should also act as the gatekeeper in the other direction, preventing the material they don’t want their children to see (or themselves) from being accessible – instead of taking responsibility themselves. Demand ISPs incur extra cost they’ll want extra revenue.

    On the costs side is I already pay to connect to the Internet (twice), Google pays a *lot* to connect it server farms to the Internet; why should anyone have to pay extra to move some specific content around? If (and I doubt) what we are currently being charged for Internet access is too low to cover the costs of provision and generate an accounting profit, then the charges should go up. Simples…

  2. February 21, 2011 6:37 pm

    Your point about delegating responsibility to ISPs is a vital one IMO. We are perhaps too ready to trade our personal freedoms to let someone else make us feel safer, or make our Web experiences feel more clean and neat. This tends to infantalise us as consumers – something gatekeepers are all too happy to let happen.

    Autonomy requires personal responsibility. Perhaps – as you say – sometimes extra cash. But give it away and the ultimate cost can be hard to recover.

  3. February 25, 2011 8:31 pm

    Well, only recently the Australian government was intent on an internet filtering system, backed by the shouting of the Christian lobby. Fortunately it was quietly ‘sent for review’ and dropped; it was going to require ISPs to run all requests through a blacklist to drop out ‘banned’ websites. Ostensibly it was to prevent child porn and the like, but critics pointed out that it had no effect on P2P or other file sharing. Not only that, the blacklist wasn’t to be made public (wikileaks sorted that one out!).

    It was a bit of a worry though, because – like the Egypt dropout – it showed how easily powerful forces could impose restrictions and twist our ability to access the internet in a way we’ve taken for granted until now. Good post!

  4. March 7, 2011 12:34 am

    Good article! Actually really good, I am definitely going to follow this blog.
    And since I have an essay to do about katekeepers on line it is also really useful.
    But gatekeeping = rules
    And who set the rules : commercial and sometimes politica via opression.
    quite worrying for a so much “free space”

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