Gratis versus libre
the importance of the Open Web
Access to Information has always been what drives me. It’s what made me want to be a librarian, then it was the tangible act of handing over a book filled with tales of adventures. (ok, this was the dream what actually happen was that I worked in a tax library so tales of estate and direct taxation but to accountants. I’m sure they were filled with tales of adventures). Now protecting unfettered access to information is important whether that research is done using physical books or search engines. Breaking down roadblocks to allow for information and knowledge to flow seamlessly through the interwebs is what drives my work with CC. CC is about letting content creators have the choice to decide for themselves how freely they want their knowledge to flow, CC is the tool that allows for that sharing. What was once cries against FBI access to library loan patrons records is now the NSA recording your every search, it’s now corporations using your data for their share price.
Having my feet on two continents has given me the opportunity to consider things from both sides of the developed and developing coin, from global norths experienced and privileged position to the global south needs based and innovative driven position. Fun to weigh in on both sides.
The buckshot of all the pieces that go into Open Web advocacy are so scattered that we’re yet to really define what we want. And because the issues are so vast and varied and vital it allows for the agenda to be driven and for open web advocates to respond instead of drive. What we’re actually talking about when we’re talking about the Free and Open Web is; if everyone should have equal access to it or only those who can pay for it.
In Africa the demand is out driven by the supply, and governments, mobile providers and ISP control the supply. The mobile device has been set to ‘save Africa’ for over a decade. Why have we not seen the wide spread game changing results in education, healthcare, and government that were promised. It’s a control issue not a supply issue. What happens when you hand over that control?
In Rwanda, Internet.org provides free access to internet to students by way of offering online courses using Facebook as the intermediary, requiring all students to log into Facebook before gaining access to the course. There is no alternative to taking the course without the Facebook paywall. Connectivity at all costs and those costs determined by terms and services by the corporation giving you access. Of course access is better than no access and access to education is essential but it’s not just education. Internet.org requires all apps to be connected through Facebook. Your banking, your healthcare app, and all the access you want but it’s not a free. Facebook wants your data and your data is the commodity that Facebook trades.
Two things. First is that we’re giving an advanced tool to an immature user. Developed internet markets have been using Facebook for a decade giving users the time and experience to make an informed decision on access versus privacy, if they want to. I’d guess that most Facebook users are blissfully and happily unaware of the algorithms that shape their world. This is the importance of projects like Mozillas Teach the Web campaign. It allows for advanced users or beginners to understand the importance of the web and how it’s being delivered to them, from the code it’s built on to the issues that shape it. Internet.org hands over the access but doesn’t educate.
Secondly, we’ve got to talk about media consumption and the dangers of filter bubbles. When Facebook is your only access to news and information it means that you are at the mercy of their algorithm. PEW Research says about ⅓ of Americans get their news from Facebook and of those who are unlikely to get news from any other source, that number jumps to 47% of Facebook users who get their media primarily from Facebook. This past August as protests ran the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, US and on twitter, Facebook dropped cold water on the issue and instead Facebook users feeds were filled with the Ice Bucket Challenge. Facebook is designed to show you more of what you want and less of what you don’t want, more Rush Limbaugh for some and more Jon Oliver for others. Zuckerburg once famously said “A squirrel dying in your front yard may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.”I think you should be exposed to both.
Are algorithms that dangerous? Offline people search for content and media that validates their own views and opinion as much as those online. Offline, there is a discovery and happenstance that happens when you’re reading the paper or a magazine. You’ve also got the option to purchase one newspaper or magazine over another.
Twitter as a news source differs from Facebook in two major ways. It’s brief and easy to share rapid-fire updates and experiences making it suited for breaking news. Second, it doesn’t have a customized algorithm showing you what it thinks you may want based on your history of likes and shares the way Facebook does. You see the tweet of people you follow in real time. Facebook’s aim is to keep you on the site as long as possible because there is no money in figuring out how to build social importance into their news feed.
Here’s why it’s bad. What would a Facebook feed look like in Rwanda in 1994? In the run up to the Rwandan Genocide? If the media being consumed is being granted and controlled by a third party, how can your views not also be shaped by that algorithm? It’s easy to do. In 2012 Facebook famously manipulated 700,000 people’s emotions by altering what they saw on their News Feed.
How the internet is run, governed and filtered is a human rights issue. Internet Activist Steve Song (the legend and infinitely more knowledgeable on the subject than me) argues that “Bad access trumps no access” I don’t agree with him on this but I do agree with him in that competition solves this problem. I agree that “the secret to Net Neutrality is a competitive wholesale and retail market for Internet services” but I also feel that the important layer to the puzzle of maintaining an Open Web is educating a community, globally on their rights to a free and unfettered web.