When Twitter made sweeping changes this week — changes that I find largely unhelpful, and in some cases, counterproductive — it really drove home for me that a service I consider to be a fundamental part of my day-to-day internet activity is a privately-offered venture, accountable to no one but itself and its investors. That’s not a new revelation, I understand, but it was my personal “ah-ha” moment.
And that’s fine, that’s the way innovation works in a free-market economy. And there’s nothing to prevent a competitor from coming out of nowhere and ultimately eclipsing it, just as Facebook did to Friendster and MySpace. My concern, rather, is with the tendency of governments and international organizations to focus not on the overwhelming power and ubiquity of popular services like Twitter to disseminate information and organize people — as we’ve seen time and time again recently in the Middle East and in the Occupy movement — but rather on the power of the internet itself.
And the internet is powerful. But considered in a vacuum, it’s a road without cars.
The UN’s Human Rights Council issued a groundbreaking report earlier this year arguing that the internet is protected under article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in that it “has become a key means by which individuals can exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression.” It’s about as close as the UN could come to flatly declaring the internet a basic human right without explicitly saying so as it possibly could. What the Council failed to recognize, though, is that the internet is only a vehicle for opinion and expression inasmuch that the products and services exist to facilitate it. The FCC regularly makes the same mistake in expressing its goal to bring broadband to unserved and underserved areas of the US.
And that got me to thinking, exactly where is the line between “the internet” and the privately-operated services that are connected to it and make it useful? And what can’t you do on the internet in the absence of private innovation and support? I think it can be boiled down to three very critical things: searching, indexing, and online data persistence. As it stands today, none of those things can be effectively accomplished without companies like Google, Twitter, and Facebook. Basically, anything that makes it really easy to get your message in front of a lot of people in a reasonable amount of time requires the help of a corporation. (Email is one of the few services that doesn’t need a lick of private investment, and that’s because it doesn’t require search, indexing, or online data persistence to function — it can work point-to-point. But it also isn’t effective at disseminating information to a wide audience.)
Again, I’m not arguing against an open market. It’s hard to look at the internet as a whole today and say that the free-for-all model hasn’t done extraordinarily well for us. But what I’d like to see is for the UN go a step further and define, in generic terms, the types of capabilities that have bore themselves out to be critical to advancing causes and bringing about change: microblogging (Twitter), public contact management (Facebook), web search, and so on. The mere capability for a bunch of computers to communicate with one another — which, on some fundamental level, is all the internet is — isn’t in itself a basic human right, simply because it isn’t useful to the average human. It’s the combination of the internet and the services that live on it that make it such a powerful, world-changing tool.
Beyond that, I don’t know. The idealist in me thinks that these “basic” services, once defined, should be globally socialized in a very generic and completely open way, allowing unrestricted innovation in the private sector on top of them. For instance, Twitter would plug into an open microblogging system and offer branding and additional (proprietary) capability on top of it, rather than controlling the microblogging system itself — it would be the car, not both the car and the road. Of course, the realist in me understands that’s a completely unreasonable notion.
I’m open to your ideas on this one.