Bill Thompson (BBC journalist) got me thinking more about these issues the other day. In an essay The open internet and its enemies published as part of the BBC World Service debate on openness, he said:
I believe that if we want an open society based around principles of equality of opportunity, social justice and free expression, we need to build it on technologies which are themselves 'open', and that this is the only way to encourage a diverse online culture that allows all voices to be heard.Many people would agree with this (especially the techno-optimists among us), but why should this statement be true now specifically, and of the Web specifically? History tells us that we built our own "open societies" on privately owned presses, not an open printing platform. What we did have was the appropriate legal and political supplements to establish the notion of freedom of speech and freedom of expression. Eventually. Of course, the presses came before the freedom, and in some ways the presses precipitated the freedom because the technology was sufficiently open to be not entirely controllable by the state.
The Web is better than the printing press or the radio or the television at distributing information; can't we just accept the Web for that improvement in engineering (and goodness knows there is enough challenge by in that innovation alone) and legislate the appropriate balances of power and access? Why does it matter if someone owns the technology, or if it is not freely available? Why do we need to insist on the Web/Internet being an open and neutral platform instead of a closed, commercially (or governmentally) controlled environment?
In his book The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It, Jonathan Zittrain argues that the Internet needs to be open as a "generative system" to allow unanticipated change to emerge through unfiltered contribution from broad and varied audiences. Zittrain's argument is focused on technological innovation, but it could also be applied to societal development - we need broad ranging democratic engagement to make the best of our society (to innovate what we might call its "social machinery").
The open technology of the Web doesn't replace legal declarations or political commitments, but it does complement Freedom of Speech agendas. The law might say that you have a right to free speech, but it doesn't give you a platform on which to speak; the Web is a platform for communication that offers very few barriers for free speech.
It is tempting to think of the Web as "a channel for delivering premium content" and to allow it to be dominated by commercial interests. It is tempting to think of the Web as a theatre of cybercrime and cyberwarfare and to allow it to become dominated by policing and security interests. It is vital that we continue to see the Web primarily as a platform for communication, and that we allow basic rights and freedoms to dominate our plans and strategies for its future. Open technologies and open platforms are not necessary for a free society, nor do they guarantee a free society. But they do offer the potential of realising important societal freedoms more effectively than the alternative.