There was a time when nobody took anything you said seriously in an email or SMS message, for that matter. From a legal perspective, most companies include a release with a waiver of liability message at the bottom of each email stating that they don’t enter into contracts by email. If the message was sent to the incorrect recipient, please delete it.
The average office was awash with politically incorrect emails circulating the corporate world. Sometimes, they were amusing, often offensive, but generally good-natured; whatever the content, we deleted them and got on with our day. However, as the transition continued from printed to electronic media, the written word’s responsibility also changed.
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Social and Electronic media
Today, electronic media has become the noose on which to hang ourselves. If you had a bad day at work in the old days, you would bash out an angry resignation letter to your boss. Then think about what you had just written while searching for an envelope, and completely change your mind before leaving it in their in-tail. Even if you did so and changed your mind once you got home, you could still arrive extra early in the morning and retrieve it before damage was done.
But not today; as soon as you hit the send button, you have just committed the message to the ether, and nothing can save you. Politicians, sports celebrities, you and me, no one is immune. There is no second chance. The situation has become exasperated with the growth of social media. Social media is a double-edged sword for politicians, celebrities, and the like.
On the one hand, it provides instant feedback from a huge number of people as to how you are performing. But make the fatal mistake of sending the wrong tweet or uploading a bad picture to your Facebook page, and suddenly, both your professional and personal life take a tumble. Behave irresponsibly on a night out, and you can almost guarantee someone has snapped all pictures and uploaded them to a social media site, which is pushed out to thousands of followers, even before the party has finished. This does almost seem like George Orwell’s 1984 but played in reverse. It’s not that electronic media is contractually binding or implies an obligation on the individual’s part in any way. Still, it sets a trend of behavior expected by a jury of your peers.
Freedom of Speech
The Internet as we know it today is a transport mechanism. It doesn’t distinguish between good and bad. The foundation of the developed applications to run on top of this transport was always intended to be based upon freedom of speech and free of censorship restrictions. So why is so much talk today about censoring and controlling the Internet with litigation?
Before the social media revolution, most governments (in the West) were reluctant to impose any control on the Internet. Most politicians considered the Internet a large electronic encyclopedia, a research tool, or a source of dirty pictures. But along came social media, which allowed splinter opposition groups to grow and become organized. Before long, coordinated riots broke out across the United Kingdom, and governments in Egypt and Tunisia tumbled. The U.S. State Department reeled in response to the leaked interoffice cables published by Wikileaks. The Internet demonstrated its power to motivate people and bring about change in an entirely new way.
Western governments have always enjoyed a certain amount of control over the media. Carefully chosen press releases are fed to news organizations, dependent on advertising revenues, or are part of a large multinational conglomerate, who, in turn, have their political agenda. Whatever the case, mainstream news is very guarded about what is reported and when. However, the Internet allows information to be broadcast instantly, anonymously, and without prejudice. Mainstream news organizations are often forced to play catch up on viral Internet news or risk appearing redundant.
The days of needing physical media for listening to music or watching a movie have -given way to online media. Before Internet piracy, police would raid illegal VHS or DVD duplication operations and seize equipment; individuals and content owners could rest easy that their intellectual property was safe. Today, content piracy is rife; media is replicated across the Internet minutes after being officially released. Indeed, music and video stores have all but vanished from the high street, and online music and digital media stores have replaced this revenue stream altogether. However, the industry is losing millions, if not billions each year, to file-sharing pirates.
Governments are using this guise of Internet piracy protection as the catalyst to put in place controls on content, which makes service providers, search engines, and anyone else in the path accountable for maintaining links or transporting traffic illegally. This is a battle that, if successful, would erode into the margins of service providers and content search farms alike. Hence, lobbying from both sides is intense.
The piracy argument will be the catalyst for controlling the Internet, but the real reason will be curbing social media networks from organizing chaos. A strategy based on creating legislation that makes social media networks and service providers accountable for their users’ activities reduces the burden on the governments to moderate and monitor user activity. Regardless, most governments today, whether they admit it or not, have Internet kill-switch contingencies. If the situation arises, stopping the Internet is akin to blowing up the radio transmitter during wartime in the early 20th century.
The controlled Internet
What we are risking is a repeat of the mid-1990s, when organizations like AOL and MSN realized that a global Internet portal with structured content governed and controlled was the answer to the unstructured, untrustworthy pages of information on the Internet, which allowed both AOL and MSN to thrive during the early years of the Internet. Of course, once the rest of the Internet became better organized, it was quickly realized that unlimited flexibility of the Internet was far more desirable than the rigid structure of these portals. Ultimately, we face this as the alternative if censorship of content, activity, and opinions is successful.
If this did happen, is there a real risk of parallel Internet creation?
With the advent of VPN technologies designed to connect remote workers back to their corporate offices, VPNs could also form the basis of private Internet rings where users circumvent protection mechanisms by fastening to personal server resources, which would become the foundation of the underground Internet. This would become a cat-and-mouse game where authorities would infiltrate the unique ring, attempt to shut it down, and then the pass-phrase or security token changes or a new call is created, and the process starts again.