Caught in a Net

“Without control, information on the Internet is dangerous.” These words were uttered by a proponent of child vaccinations during a PBS program that looked at the controversy surrounding vaccinations and autism. There have been similar statements made in regards to Internet bullying, online pharmaceutical sales and any number of other topics. More and more we’re hearing a “shoot the messenger” sentiment calling for regulation of the Internet that would effectively destroy the wide utility it currently offers. It has come to the point that legislation has been brought to vote as groups seeking to impose their point of view try to do it by cutting communication channels. The recent Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA, is a prime example.

The Internet is a magnificent tool for information dispersal and gathering, there’s no question about it. It is true that in an open, unregulated medium there is going to be a lot of bad information intermixed with the good. Radio and then television had their moments as miracle media, making information more broadly available to the public. But as technology made interaction between individuals easier and more immediate, it has also removed control over the flow of information as well. A popular song during the early 1980s was “Video killed the radio star.” A lament that music videos and their distribution channels were rendering radio stations impotent. The indictment was true, of course. Technology has forced obsolescence on many once powerful profit streams. Television is being thrust aside by streaming media, newspapers are losing to blogs, and entertainment companies are finding their profit channels suffering as the personal computer is permitting individuals to source their own media and distribute it online. It’s not so much that the Internet is stealing once protected methodologies as it is advancing technology and the imaginative ways the advances are being exploited.

But this should not be a call to arms to limit the information juggernaut that is technology, or even its most visible current component, the Internet. Misinformation and disinformation have been a part of communications since pen was put to paper and shared. The word propaganda exists for that very reason. It should be no particular surprise, nor should it raise any alarm that the vastly greater numbers of people with access to media, especially in terms of sourcing, translates as well into a dramatic increase in the flow of bad information. But it is also a long recognized fact that attempts at regulating people’s ability to communicate their knowledge and ideas has had catastrophic consequences to the societies that tried to implement restrictions and controls. This is a primary reason for the American Constitution’s First Amendment. One of the greatest reasons for national successes and such rapid improvements to technology is the freedom to share information. Humans flourish best when they’re free to interact and share ideas.

In spite of freedom of information being such a primary tenet of democracy, not just political but economic, educational and social democracy as well, we are hearing more voices call for the impingement on the free flow of information. This is especially true in matters where power and money vastly outweighing the resources of the individual. Regardless the presented high purpose of instituting controls, the salient fact is that those controls are censorship. There are many occasions where I’m exposed to messages I find discomforting, damaging and even threatening; commercial advertisements come to mind as does the promotion of agenda. It’s true that there is a lot of fallacious information being distributed over unregulated media. But we are forced into a baby with the bath water conundrum when we seek to restrict information flow. While it may be true that the free flow of information will produce dissemination of material we might disagree with vehemently, it’s always better to have an over-abundance of information rather than a drought.

While humans are impressionable vessels that can be easily filled with negatives, the mere availability of contradicting information offers self-leveling process. An example of this is Wikipedia; a community created and maintained encyclopedia. In spite of constant attempts to corrupt the information found in it, equally constant corrections are applied to maintain it as a credible source. So clearly unbiased, it has obsoleted previous encyclopedic mainstays. This is a textbook example providing inarguable empiracal evidence that permitting the individual free access to information creation and retrieval is critical to improving the human condition. Certainly it requires that those absorbing information be discerning; vigilence is the sole fefender against tyranny in all forms.

When we hear of calls to restrict transparent information flow, it’s a virtual guarantee that the true purpose of the suggested curtailment is to hide misdeed. While one often associate a net with a form of imprisonment, there is one net that engenders the opposite; the Internet.