The internet is currently abuzz with talk of SOPA, PIPA and issues of anti-piracy and censorship. I have to applaud efforts to raise awareness about this legislation that is nothing less than a step backwards in terms of democracy and freedom. There are any number of places to find commentary on the actual details of the acts and what that would mean for the internet and its users. For me, the issue has brought forward a period of reflection on what the internet has meant personally.
I remember the days before the internet. Back then, I sought out alternative sources of news. I traded music. I wrote. I watched movies recorded on VHS tape. I critically thought about the world around me, and I sought others who did the same. In many ways, my world has not changed all that much. In some ways, the ease in which I do these things has changed, but ease does not equal better - or worse (depending on your position).
Allow me to begin with my example of alternative news and viewpoints. I once depended on bookstores, specifically small, independent bookstores, for a supply of information that was different from what was espoused on the television or in the newspapers. Truly alternative bookstores were few and far between, however, and unless you lived near a city, these sources were extremely limited. I think it can easily be argued that information (like that which is available today) was more difficult to come by back then.
Today, while the internet remains a fairly exclusive domain, reserved for those who can pay (which is a bit fewer than we like to think, especially if we look globally), alternative news and information is easy to find. The old traditional venues have re-emerged online, and there are an ungodly plethora of other sources of information today. This has been a common complaint (and warning) about the internet, and one that has not been reasonably addressed, as it remains difficult to wade through the muck to find reliable sources.
And creating one of those sources has been no easy task either. We began Recycled Minds seven years ago, building on ideas that were brought forth from our days of reading pre-internet zines and alternative newspapers. And yet, seven years later, we have a relatively small readership, and find it extremely difficult and sometimes impossible to find contributors. The internet has allowed us to create and maintain this site at a cost that is not much more than our time (not taking into account our monthly internet access bills). Our audience is potentially world-wide, and we can produce as much content as we want or can. We never did create a hard-copy newsletter or zine, but one can imagine some of the drawbacks - specifically costs relating to layout, printing and distribution to name a few.
It's hard to argue, then, that the internet is worse for information sharing. However, the main thing that I see about the internet age that remains a disadvantage is the aforementioned high number of sources available. Today, you can think about finding good information as akin to finding a needle in a haystack. Or maybe a field of hay. The sheer numbers serve to keep things unclear - even unintelligible - such that accurate pictures are hard to perceive and/or maintain. The question of what is truth remains as obscure as ever.
I seriously doubt that the powers that be seek to clear things up for the rest of us through legislation such as SOPA. What I do think is a more likely target is the sheer speed at which information can now be shared. Think, for example, about the perceived role of Twitter during the Egyptian Revolution. While Twitter was by no means a cause of the Revolution, that it played an important role should not be argued - or dismissed. I see this kind of information that is in danger of being legislated - "rapid information". The question then becomes where is the line drawn. If they start by censoring tweets, where do they stop? To be sure, this can be a slippery slope, and one that should be thoroughly discussed and understood by everyone involved.
That's the key here. If we seek a truly democratic world, we need to consult the people. We may not have had much say on how the internet was developed or on how it turned out. But now that it has become such an integral part of our lives, do we not have a say in its future? Should we not protect those powers that the internet offers to the people? The powerless? The voiceless? The exploited? It can probably offer more to these people, and I believe this is where we should be focusing our energies as a people - not in taking things away.
Anyway... at this point, I urge you to go find out more about SOPA and PIPA, and if you find it appropriate, take action against such legislation. But I also encourage you as a human being, to consider how tools like the internet can be mobilized to create a better world. Since the age of the internet, the rich have become richer, the poor poorer. Is that a coincidence? Can the internet play a role in reversing that trend?