As someone who is working in the information business, I have been fascinated by the leaks coming out from Wikileaks over the past few weeks. Fascinated as much by the reaction to the leaks as the leaks themselves. The reaction from politicians and commentators in the United States has been particularly….er…..disturbing. Calls for assassinations and equating Julian Assange with Osama Bin Laden are just some of the examples of blatant hyperbole that have dominated the airwaves since this series of leaks commenced. However, the leaks still come and day by day we are hearing new revelations in regard to foreign policy and international diplomacy. Yes, some of this may be tittle-tattle, but some of the information that is being leaked is noteworthy. Certainly they help to provide a bit of context to some of the events of recent years. But what about the future for information delivery in the light of these attacks on Wikileaks?
I guess before I go any further, I should disclose that I share Assange’s philosophy that the unlimited provision of free information can make the world a better place. Rational decisions can only be made when one has access to all the relevant information. One cannot, as an individual, make reasoned decisions without information. As I’ve noted before, one cannot expect people to make rational choices about the food they eat without being provided with information about it (or even the tools to interpret it).
What is more, the Internet is perhaps the greatest tool at our disposal to ensure the spread of information. Unfortunately, in the past couple of years there have been moves to restrict the flow of information on the Internet. Newspapers are steadily hiding things behind paywalls. Big name companies are placing restrictions on what content can be kept on their servers (see Amazon pulling the plug on Wikileaks). Large multi-national corporations have spent millions lobbying against net neutrality, effectively supporting a two tier information network. What we are seeing is the steady erosion of the liberty principle behind the Internet by corporations and governments, leading to a system where some have access to information and some do not, with money being the main dividing line.
As if the slow establishmentarianism and commercialisation of the Internet wasn’t bad enough, the only institution that can level the playing field (libraries) are being slowly taken apart (maybe not so slowly in some cases). For libraries can subscribe to content to ensure that people can access materials without having to negotiate pay walls. Why bother paying to subscribe to The Times online, when you can access it for free at the library? In a way, the increased commercialisation should be a good thing for libraries. After all, if libraries can purchase access on behalf of their users it could theoretically encourage people back into libraries. However, it may be that this is seen as too much of a threat to the commercial world. Whilst there is a free access model, they cannot make the profits that they would hope for. And the free access model is certainly under threat – see the increased attacks on the BBC as media outlets start to put their content behind paywalls. As long as the BBC puts out free news content, few people will pay for news content online. Take the BBC out of the equation and bingo…users will be forced to pay for news content.
The internet is in very grave danger of moving towards a state where there is a large amount of content that people are simply not able to access. As the commercial sector and the government tighten their grip on this resource, there is a very real danger of the digital divide becoming virtually impossible to close. Certainly, without libraries to help provide access to content that is otherwise behind paywalls, there are a great many people who will never be able to access the kind of information that most of us will take for granted. It would seem that not only is education being re-branded as a privilege, access to information may well be about to go through a similar re-branding process. Governments and corporations both have much to gain from just such a re-branding exercise. Control for the former and profit for the latter.
For more thoughts on this, I’d heartily recommend The Commercialisation of the Internet and the Erosion of Free Speech. It’s a very interesting read and highlights some of the dangers ahead for free information on the Internet.