To those of us who experienced its genesis, the Internet seemed at first to exist apart from an unfortunate status quo; a brave new blueprint for a thriving peer-to-peer society that spurns corporate branding and advertising culture in lieu of actual, genuine human connections. But Isaac Wilder, founder of the Free Network Foundation, knows the truth: The Internet, a once publicly-owned utility birthed from a government communications experiment, is falling back into the hands of corporations, and it's time to fight back. The only problem: some of the most popular ways we've taken to doing so are based, ironically, on platforms owned by profit-driven entities.
It's just one dilemma Wilder addresses in Motherboard's recent documentary, Free the Network, which follows him and his band of network engineers across months of protest and police agression in New York City. He worries people are starting to forget that services like Twitter and Facebook (the latter of which is currently looking forward to a potential $10 billion IPO this May) are private organizations with their own self-serving agendas. When reminded of the narrative being pushed around during the social upheavals of the Arab Spring – that of social media as a liberator – Wilder was understandably ambivalent.
"It made it very clear that there is a very dangerous mass-delusion among the populace," he said. "A lot of people […] put a lot of faith in those platforms and don't realize that the medium is the message."
The medium can also be very fickle. In line with the ever-shifting quest for novelty that is so common to today's internet, the impassioned chatter about places now under similar upheaval, like Syria, hasn't quite gone "viral" as it did in Egypt and Libya. Socially-conscious campaigns that live by the hashtag and the idle "Likes" of millions can just as easily die by them too.
But even Wilder's own efforts, which involve setting up wireless mesh networks to grant universal access to all, are undermined in some way by corporate interests — at least for now. Aside from the privacy concerns that come with conglomerates trading us connectivity for our privacy, the challenge goes deeper and gets more physical: the Internet is made up of miles and miles of land and undersea telecommunications cables owned by private companies. Regulators have been attempting to keep service providers neutral when it comes to the content being passed through their tubes. But with rising pressure from pro-copyright lobbyists in the entertainment industry (and the increasingly apparent toothlessness of frustrated regulators like the FCC and FTC) they've been met with mixed success, at best.
It's a problem without an easy solution, but Wilder and co. are nevertheless building the framework and coping with the paradoxes. (The Free Network Foundation notably eschews Twitter.) In the meantime, we'd do well to remain mindful of the implications our various tweets and status updates have for us within the existing system, even as they are being used to reconstruct or subvert that system.