David Wees

Mathematics Teacher, Stratford Hall

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Is the current direction of the web Democratic?

While I agree with Roger that his vision of the future of the web is where we are headed, I would like to argue that it is wholly unDemocratic. The control panel version of the Internet is disturbing, because it seems to me that we have become willing to sacrifice the ability to control what we view and interact with for the convenience of other people making that decision for us.

Facebook and Google's algorithms to filter what we view based on our preferences means that, through the algorithms they have written, corporations have more control over the information we receive than ever before. The definition of fascist corporatism (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corporatism#Fascist_corporatism) is "management of sectors of the economy by government or private organizations." In an information technology age, management of information is management of the economy, and we are letting private corporations manage entirely too much of our information.

We know where the road of fascism leads us. We need to take a step back from that road and find a new path.

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    Nov 22 2011: Democracy is always threatened if it falls into the hands of dictators. Apparently it sounds very obvious, but in reality the defining line democracy and dictatorship is very thin.

    The web is continuously being occupied by new 'tend to be giant' or 'tend to be dictators', as we can see now the 'web' is becoming synonymous to Facebook and Google.

    That's the scary part of keeping the web democratic. These rises of giants will always lead to ill practices and monopoly. We know, power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.
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    Nov 13 2011: Filter bubbles are easy to get around if you want. You can delete your cookies, you can access the internet from other computers, and you can use other search engines. Furthermore, many of the result filters organize the order of the results. There is nothing stopping you from looking at the fifth page of results.

    The real danger as far as I'm concerned is in the realm of wireless internet provided by cell phone networks. There seems to have been a complete abandonment of net neutrality within cellular networks. For instance, in my cell phone plan i get free data for facebook and twitter. Why don't I get free data for wikipedia? Why is the cost of my data dependent on what site I am visiting. The whole idea of net neutrality is to prevent the provider of the internet from exerting economic control which sites I see. Now it costs me more to go to wikipedia, rueters, cbc, or whatever than it does to go to facebook.

    What happens if media tycoons use this to control the news. Imagine fox news is free but I have to pay for cbc.

    There was a reason the net neutrality laws were put in place.
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      Nov 13 2011: I agree with all of that. The mobile and app based web are different landscapes with more private ownership built in. This is only opinion - I believe it is inevitable that the web move in this direction. The question then is how do you exercise control in this changing system?
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        Nov 13 2011: First, governments should enforce the same net neutrality regulations on cellular internet networks.

        Second. Consumers should avoid using them and stick to regular wifi networks that hook to the old shool internet to show our intolerance to net non-neutrality. (its cheaper anyway)
        • Nov 13 2011: Ah, at least *I* live in a country with proper cellular network legislation. And none of the carriers here are that biased either. They also let you get to some websites free, but you at least get to choose which ones.

          Well... That is the price for a world controlled by large corporations...
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      Nov 13 2011: The question is Scott: are most users aware of this issue? Do they know how to avoid being in an Internet filter bubble?

      Net Neutrality is a huge issue as well. No disagreement from me here, we need to get that sorted out, and I don't see that we can rely on our governments to support Net Neutrality.
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        Nov 15 2011: @ Richard. Well, I am glad to hear that not all countries have the same policies the U.S. and Canada have in regards to cellular networks. (I feel like I reinforced the stereotype that North Americans think they are the whole world). Hopefully countries like yours (Czech Republic) will set an example to my government about enforcing net neutrality. :)

        David,

        We have to remember the good old education system. Teachers (even in public high schools) are wise to require diverse source when doing research. Many people have gone on in education and have at least some university or college experience doing research. This is the skill we use when we search for information. People are smart, they know they can't just look in one place and believe everything they read, whether its google, facebook or the local newspaper.

        People who can't get around a filter bubble have only themselves to blame. If someone finds google too filtered, they can go somewhere else. They can use another search engine, or for that matter, go to a library. We can't expect to be spoon fed an objectively diverse collection of sources at a click of a mouse. We have to dig a little. As long as people keep digging then there is a market for a search engine that provides unusual info.

        Admittedly I find search engine filters to be a little condescending, since they imply I can't decide for myself what I'm looking for. I find that about a lot of the "conveniences" of new high tech innovations lately. But I don't think it prevents me from accessing information. If I want to know something, I take it upon myself to find out. The internet still helps me do that.
  • Nov 12 2011: I don't see the problem with result-filtering. However, I do see a point with being able to configure it, because, and this is a key point, sometimes the results that have been found for me through my habits are not the ones I want at this moment. They may, for this moment, be irrelevant to my interests.

    Google is very clear with one of their aims (read their financial report for more, you can google it):
    "We provide users with products and services that enable people to more quickly and easily find, create, and organize information that is useful to them. "

    My point is that I use google as a middleman between "knowing what I'm searching for" and "reading what I want". For this, no other search engine comes close. I remember back in 2000-2001 when I started using the internet, when searching for something, I went through three different search engines (yahoo, altavista and google, thought at first I didn't know about google), each engine only provided one or two links remotely relevant to my interests. Over time, I dropped Yahoo, it didn't give me what I wanted, later on, I dropped Altavista, because Google was the only one that consistently provided the sites I was searching for.

    If some other engine comes along that more consistently provides me with what I'm searchinig for, I'd be willing to switch instantly. I'm not loyal to google in that I trust them to be the judge of what I should read, it's just very convenient.

    Don't get me wrong, I'm all for new ways of doing things. I'd probably love a search engine that regularly incorporates new and different ideas and variations of my searches into the result, but a lot of the times I'm using the engine as a middleman, then I only want the straight up; "This is probably what you'd like to read"-answer.
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      Nov 12 2011: One of the problems is, a bit of randomness in your search means that you occasionally get exposed to ideas to which you are not accustomed. When your search results are entirely personalized for you, you get results that are not as likely to expose you to the many different perspectives on how the world works. Instead of the various factions that inhabit the Internet being exposed to each other regularly, you bump into each other only very occasionally, and forget that other perspectives exist.
      • Nov 13 2011: My point was that maybe those personalized results are the ones I'm most interested to see. If i search for "polytheistic religions" I would throw google out of the window very quickly if it linked me to local churches, asked me if I haven't considered converting to Islam or if I have considered that maybe there is no god at all. It was never the reason I visited the site to begin with.

        The thing I like with google is that it's very good at providing exactly the most relevant sites available on the net for my particular search terms. If it didn't, it wouldn't be a very good engine at all!
        If you search the index of your computer for "Iron Maiden", would you like the search results to include "lady gaga" as well?

        I'm open to the idea of a different search engine, but I probably wouldn't use it when mainly searching for information.

        But say that you have the control over facebook, how would you filter the information for people recieving 2000 status updates over the course of a day? The most personally relevant ones does not sound like such a bad idea, me thinks!
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          Nov 13 2011: It would not be that difficult to create some filters that allow more flexibility and self management of data - the point being there is no real commercial advantage - so it would have a low priority.

          The best way to filter is the same as with twitter. Just don't log on.

          I enjoyed early browser flexibility where Google arose but I appreciate their attempts at context sensitivity. The trouble is that cognitive science of web user experience is hugely complex and diverse - developers use information architecture that often is created out of just a few use case scenarios and a bit of pre modelled patterning. For this reason - validating the IA of any web or software application use can be redundant unless you really research with full ethnographic and understanding the 'who what where why and how' of understanding humans interaction with software applications. The best safeguard is to build in a bit of high level self designing flexibility - i.e. include some more useful sensitivity built in but also give the user some soft options for creating their own user environment - that is if they ever want it as a real desktop.
  • Dec 11 2011: I think that soon this so called "Mankind will always have its greed, its selfishness and its proprietary mentality" is died out because all the new developments is all ready taken us away from troubles, if You look a car-we do not hear noise, breaks nothing it is only driving (some cars even help to park it), if we look food-well we use already transformed food with different DNA/RNA and other thing -this will affect our thinking and life so, only the greed is not under the control, so the current direction is not democratic, how can it be democratic if it has been so few time? it is natural thing to control things what is new-and control means power, power means that it is safe. In my opinion there will be always battle over interntet direction because it is virtual, but how we sense the virtual thing t is different. The minus in that is only this that during the afraid peroid we may sleep over some good ideas and persons.
  • Dec 9 2011: The internet just like the real world has every side to it. Sure there is the democratic side, just like this web site where everyone can freely at their own lesure participate and share, but then of course there is the pure anarchist side to it all. A democratic union is only formed when those participating all want it, and for such a reality to truly take place one must be selfless. That is why a Utopia will never come to exist, because Mankind will always have its greed, its selfishness and its proprietary mentality.
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    Dec 9 2011: I guess we should have invented and built the web "democratically," whatever that means. Then we could have made it democratic, whatever that would mean. Democracy is for governing. The concept doesn't apply to every aspect of life, and I don't see how it applies to the Internet. Does it make sense to ask if the corner store is democratic? Or the evening newspaper? No one has to choose Internet services that they don't like. There's freedom to choose and to contribute.

    By the way, the "fascist corporatism" of Italy in the 1920s-40s didn't have much to do with "corporations" as we know them today. It was rather a variant quasi-democratic concept. Where we in the U.S. elect our representatives geographically, the idea in the fascist state was to select representatives for the governing body from within interest groups such as trade unions and associations of economic interests. These were the "corporations" that partook in governance. Not a bad idea, on paper at least, and not necessarily non-democratic. The reasons for the fascists' demise was not so much the corporative state structure as fundamental moral failings of the Fascist party and Mussolini personally.
  • Dec 9 2011: The idea of a democratic media is rather amusing given the fact that all forms of communication have subjectivity, bias and personal agendas attached to them. Any time we communicate, be it through reading, watching tv., political ideologies, education, advertising, conversation and so on, we are being deluged with what someone wants us to know. Filter bubbles exist everywhere and not just where we'd expect as in media. Whenever you read a newspaper you get a skewed view because even though it is factual it is not the only news. There is just too much info to send and absorb. Whoever is sending info is the one who determines his amount and topic. How is this undemocratic? It's like any program....you see what the producer designs, be it sit-com, news, debates, websites, etc. It is up to us to determine what we let in and what we keep out. Self-discipline is our domain and when an advertiser targets you for selling something it is inevitable he will try to give you what you want rather than what you need. But isn't that typically something we've already been programed to accept? Filter bubbles? Get used to them. Or better still simply turn it off.
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    Dec 7 2011: It is the greatest invention ever to spread democratic freedom of expression. True, search engines have their own biases, and tonnes of illegal content are online, but at its very core, the Internet has done a great job by tearing down the primeval forces that hinder communication: Race, Age, Gender. For example, if an intelligent kid poses a mature comment, it would even be treated with equal regard as if it came from an adult. Censorship will always exist to restrain the excesses of mankind, so in that sense, the direction will never be fully democratic, and perhaps rightly so.
  • Dec 6 2011: In my country there is something I believe is against Internet principles: you actually pay for download time, you have a downloading limit and it comes fron the enterprises that provide us the access.
    Switzerland made a very great step forward, but Perú is just going back and this kind of stuff just increasess pirate stuff consume.
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    Dec 6 2011: no.
  • Dec 6 2011: It's democratic certainly, at least in the West. I have never heard of censorship on the internet in the West, and the kind that does exist is self inflicted- there are other search engines out there, and one doesn't have to use Facebook.
    I'm going to have to agree with Aldous here- it's our lack of interest that cripples a democratic internet.
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    Dec 6 2011: Aldous Huxley, he his a brilliant predictor of what the internet has done to us in general. With so much information at our fingertips we are generally reduced to apathy.
    Don't get me wrong, there are exceptions everywhere! Dedicated activists who use the web for good.
    What about websites who track our movements without our consent (this is a common fact)? So many of us know of this and don't care. So many more don't know.
    I'm going off on several tangents so I'll leave it right there.
  • Nov 26 2011: The democracy of the web begins with the access. A very limited portion of the world population can have that access,
    And then comes the democracy inside the web. Most things we do are ran by corporations that can dictate how those things can evolve.
    So, considering the internet as an undemocratic place, how could it be turned into a democratic place?
  • Nov 24 2011: totally undemocratic!!! :p
  • Nov 24 2011: The internet is fundamentally undemocratic in so far as all interchange is moderated by those with vested interests which are for the most part either partially or wholly undisclosed (E.g. google, facebook and dare I say it TED).

    It is however the least undemocratic mass access means of interchange
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    Nov 24 2011: Now the trend is to give one a content that supports his/her views... as this is not too challenging I do not see any malevolent intention behind it,... people are the sources of income and automats that like their content being supportive... it is just a business .. It is ok...Probably one will be able to choose to switch this off if they wanted if it becomes an issue. Yet it is not especially when one realizes there are other sources than google and FB (like a neighbor, TV or a Couchsurfer friend)
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    Nov 22 2011: Is the current direction of the web democratic?

    Not in the sense of control. Originally the web was invented by US military but given to commons - so it could be used by all for beneficial reasons. Management was originally public with academic orientation - sharing of knowledge and cross-border communications. In the 90s the advent of online commerce necessitated that financial regulation and protection of data became critical aspects - privatisation of the web 'space' has since dominated. Privatisation for capitalist purposes of course spells =controls. Yet these are typically democratic oriented controls. Other non-democratic controls (e.g. censorship) impact in the jurisdiction of the web user.

    In terms of democratic use:

    The internet is self regulated and regulated at three points of governance. These are “the physical, the code (transport) and the content layer.” State government law and regulation primarily covers the physical layer of hardware, equipment and ISP or network hosting sites. As internet servers may be in a jurisdiction outside the user’s domicile and physical location, there may be more than one state involved in the regulation – primarily of telecommunications industry.

    The transport layer comprises code and the operational system of the internet. This layer is devoid of a body of law and is self regulated through trans-border standards and protocols. Examples are World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and Internet Corporation for Assigned Codes and Numbers (ICANN).

    The content layer has the greatest regulation through state domestic laws and any international law that might be impacted - such as international Intellectual Property protection (WIPO) and Council of Europe Convention on Cybercrime.

    In summary - controls are subject to the relevant country and use in terms of marketing and privacy - but apart from above still a lot more relaxed on internet than local laws in your own country.
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    Nov 14 2011: The web -- like other media -- reflect the values of societies. Sometimes this results in outcomes which are populist and demagogic. I wonder if millions of people flocking to Hitler's National Socialism -- were we now in the 1930s -- would be considered 'democratic' (reflecting the biases, hatreds, frustrations, and scapegoating of the masses....). I think elites assume that 'the mob' has wisdom and beneficence as core values . Experience shows that's often not the case.... In short, if the majority espouses fascism, are we then to favor 'democracy'?
  • Nov 13 2011: Now, get your facts straight. Are you saying that Google is biasing it's results based on bribes from companies, or alters its results to fit its needs??! God, don't believe everything what you hear from that guy in the video. One of the main things that made Google such a big hit is that their search went through a clean and good algorithm that was completely unbiased and untampered with.
    Oh, and please, never bring Google and Facebook into the same sentence again. They are both companies with a completely different aim, method, and policy.
    Another thing about the Democracy part: The internet *never was* democratic. Yes, as you pointed out somewhere, there have been democratic elections and things like that, but what you have to realize is that that is a very different topic. In this case it is that the internet is being used as a medium to create democracy in the world. But the rest of the internet here was mostly just free reign, with a few international laws and everything.
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      Nov 13 2011: Who said anything about bribes? I think you are putting words in my mouth.

      Have you actually tested your Google results and your friends Google results, and the difference between when you are logged in, or not logged in?
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    Nov 13 2011: I have been using the Internet since the early 1990's for research into all aspects of life. I love being able to find information and welcome the widening of the web to enable communication and information sharing. I have been passionate about seeing technology as an enabler to opportunities for life and learning. During the 1990's i felt that it was going to make great changes in the world and lead to great things. So what do I see know? a society controlled by social networking where there is the belief that through all the amazing games technologies we will learn better, we a free to study what we want when we want, to buy what we want globally and to have freedom of speech about anything and everything.

    I fall flat at times when I see how much time young people are sitting on their mobile devices and other technology - the technologies that are meant to encourage their growth and look at all the opportunities that are passing them by. I see all the unemployment caused by a growth in jobs for a few and wonder about what this will mean in 10 years time. I am on Facebook, twitter, linkedin and I look at it all and think - has this really enriched my life?

    To answer the question directly - yes the aforementioned are democratic in that we have signed up to their conditions without force but I do feel that I am a lemming going over the edge and not knowing why. I know they filter, I know that the market is funded by advertising and that at certain times of the day the consumer is more willing to buy products than other so it is my 'choice' as it is the masses whether to buy or not to buy. I always wanted to have 'my world' online which means I really appreciate that when i go to Amazon it recognizes what i had last time and offers me products. What Facebook and Google are doing do not seem new to me. We have enabled them to create the filters by sharing so much with them.

    The bigger question must be what in this brave new world is democracy?
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    Nov 13 2011: This is not to say that I don't share some of the views about how much power we give away to corporations who control the web space - it is just to say that they do it because we are supporting a capitalist system and we all want to participate in the spoils and all complain when it restricts us. Yet we all want to get rich or get paid by the same corporations don't we? Or seem to as we keep voting and serving the same system.

    I think the concept of permission based marketing is a far more just and secure method of data sharing of personal details and information - than cookie collection and stealth tools directly used to mine and store customer data. But the reality is that the world of anal control is the smelly armpit of our western first world society and rapidly integrating into third world economies - where cheap labour market enable capitalism to bloom - but not sustainably or for long - because the next step in the capitalist process (i.e. to keep making profit margins) is to downsize labour. After capitalising third world and developing it - unlike the low population first world economies - companies will resort to technology and there will be a great divergence of no longer needed 'poor' labour. By this time we should have cut down all the trees, fished out the waters and be living in climate disaster refugee camps anyway - wherever we live - predicted by scientists for the next 15 years at over 250 million displacements like those of Darfur - climate disasters in first or third world. But we will be able to send live real time footage and update our friends with our internet WAP whatever it is then (thats the cynical side of me).

    Do you think a bunch of tweeters really sparked an Arab revolution? Or do you think it was just the revolt of human consciousness that comes from exasperation and desperation? I mean - did Gandhi have an iphone or use Wikileaks?
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    Nov 13 2011: Most people are aware of the history of the internet - i.e.:

    Originally developed from a US Department of Defence research project, the internet has evolved into the world’s largest computer network of over 72 million computers – the World Wide Web comprising a public access cyberspace residing outside territorial boundaries of sovereign nations. This event produced significant benefits and impacts shaping current liberal economic platform of unified financial transaction integration and facilitated a growing sphere of international communications and information sharing via computer technology. (excerpt from a recent legal paper I wrote)

    The point - although a US military invention - the web cyberspace is public commons with no formal jurisdiction - but the point of entry or management - i.e. the use of that space is very much controlled by territorial concerns and global governance interests.

    The main reasons for controlling the web are commercial. Originally the web was primarily an academic managed environment. People saw capitalist business (democratic) opportunities for using it to make money and the management or control geared into the new goldrush of the millenium. Thars gold in tham thar ills...

    So as long as l'iberal economic democracy prevails' - commercially oriented management (CONTROL) also takes place. You buy a block of land and want to build an empire. Then you want to protect the empire - i.e. the money changing hands and locations - and the information that now has an 'economic' value. So governments need to take a greater role to protect your interests and those of the corporates. They make laws to protect citizens/shareholders.

    Most of international law surrounding internet use is developed to combat crime. Crimes such as hacking, theft and lowlife paedophiles who trade child sex and animal abuse. Quite frankly I don't see a problem with enforcing prevention and protection from this.

    The issue of Censorship exists without web
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    Nov 12 2011: Some observations from Richard Beaudry (@RBeaudryLTA) on Twitter:

    Democratic:
    Social media success - Examples: Elections in Iran, and people revolutions in the Arab world this year.

    unDemocratic:
    Internet Censorship still a problem in countries led by single political parties: China, Syria, Burma.
    US Sen. tried to overturn the FCC's rules on Open Int. intro. in 2010. Corp. interests over democracy.
    US Sen voted 52–46 to defeat S.J Res 6 which would have overturned the FCC Commissions Open Int Rules.

    Can you think of other examples in which the Internet is becoming less Democratic?