The internet as a global information tool has been in free fall for decades now. It started the second the government understood its information delivery abilities. While Gilmore’s quote that: The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it, has largely rung true, the number of valid routes around are dwindling in some areas. There are still routes to certain areas, but they’ve gotten rarer and harder to navigate.
Some places have censorship to the point a VPN or similar isn’t a luxury; it’s a necessity for access, in or out. Others are gated by content being filtered by different algorithms derived from different laws. The internet isn’t necessarily restricted, but what is easily consumed is. You get Orwell versus Huxley for how it is enforced.
Google’s issue in Australia is potentially setting a new precedent. If Google withdrawals from Australia, it won’t be the first time Google has left a country, but it will be the first time it’s left a Western nation. This runs the risk of setting a global precedent which serves to further split up the internet.
I have no plans to argue one way or another, but instead I plan to take this to the logical conclusion of the worst case scenario. The whole event may work up to be a minor inconvenience, or it may work out to a complete collapse of the global nature of the internet. Only time will tell.
The Birth of the Global Internet
I’m old enough to remember the promise of the consumer internet. I still remember modems measured in Baud even though I never used them. At the time, the internet was a fun place where you could be (somewhat) anonymous with minimal effort. On the internet, I could dive into new worlds of knowledge that I never would have encounter in school.
The global internet connected the world in a way which even the telegraph couldn’t. The world was there and it was available. Your only limitation was the speed you could browse it. Sometimes the volume was too much, but other times you were limited by yourself.
The internet wasn’t an existential threat to many countries because it either wasn’t widespread enough to matter, or it didn’t fit the narrative to condemn. Once governments learned how the internet impacted or disrupted society and the economy, they became interested. The internet became worth controlling.
The internet grew from something free but technically hard to access into something ubiquitous. It went from a rarity to a common tool, and it got regulated along the way. Exactly how it was regulated varied place to place, but there was an unwritten agreement to keep it “open”. That unwritten agreement eventually broke down though.
The Net Interprets Censorship as Damage
Gilmore’s interpretation of the internet is a callback to the old internet. The internet used to exist as more of a hobby than a financial avenue. Once the internet became commercially viable, things changed.
It’s one thing to fight on principle for your hobby site in an unknown medium, it’s another to fight on principle as a financially motivated institution in your primary market. One takes determination, the other requires contradiction. Fighting the system is fine when nothing’s on the line, but it’s much harder for most to fight when the cards are stacked and the gains remote.
The modern, mainstream internet only interprets censorship as damage as long as it is financially convenient to do so. It’s easy for an individual to back a cause, it’s harder for a multinational entity to do so. John might back the cause, but his company only looks at it from a branding perspective.
The internet isn’t a collection of hobby sites and proofs of concept anymore, it’s a massive commercial entity. There are still those who support technologies like Tor or similar on principle, but every method of jumping censorship has an impact on performance. The more complicated the method to route around the censorship, the slower it tends to be. It’s one thing to need access to a site for a job or similar and to want to see differing opinions on the internet.
Censorship is like security, as long as it makes the risk seem higher than the reward, it’s done its job. No method will ever make access impossible, but it will make it slow and inefficient which can be more than enough. There may be a detour, but is the perceived value of the end result worth the longer trip?
The Looming Precedent
France already tested the waters for Europe. While Google made things work, this was more a battle of overzealous regulators versus an American business model in many onlookers’ eyes. While the French front didn’t work out, more and more countries became suspicious of Google’s virtual search monopoly.
Nothing currently stops a search engine from competing with Google aside from the prohibitive startup costs. Alternatives exist, but who uses them besides people conditioned to do so from force of habit, or people who are really committed? I use EFF for compelling reasons). We’ve been reduced to economic battles between corporate entities on a system which has no real restrictions without the right legal framework. It’s one thing to ban a site in Iran versus trying to block a service in the US.
It’s trivial to order a ban of something ephemeral, it’s another to enforce it. WeChat is technically banned as of writing, but nothing has changed. There’s an order, but an inability to really enforce or even sanely acknowledge it. This could change with the potential resulting precedents from forcing Google out of Australia.
Avoiding the Problem
Any regional ban which doesn’t nationalize and crack down on the internet will end with just increasing the technical ante. Simple solutions like VPNs wreck any chance of enforcing a regulation unless there is the legal framework to go further. A ban becomes a gray area without the teeth to clamp down.
Some nations have the frameworks to fully ban a site on a non-functional basis, but very few Western nations have this ability. Even Europe couldn’t fight back the cultural influence of Google. The battle isn’t won with conceptual restrictions, it’s won with a legal framework to enable enforcement.
While Australians may jump to a VPN or similar to access Google in the case of a complete withdrawal, it won’t really change much; the damage is done. Google withdrawing will symbolize a philosophical loss for the commercialized internet. It becomes a mechanism to curtail certain free speech as well as further the splintering of the internet.
To censor a site requires the legal framework to do so. If a site can leave the “free” internet, it means the division of the philosophical pinnacle of the implementation of the internet. Running Google off just means opening the gate to splinterization without consideration for the long-term outcome.
The Legal Ramifications
While Google or any of the tech giants may deserve to be broken up, running them off just shifts the focus. The ideological purpose shifts from rectifying the problem at its source to resolving the symptoms. While solving the symptom short term can improve well-being temporarily, it doesn’t change the underlying condition.
We’re not just setting a cultural precedent, we’re setting the stage for a virtual massacre. While sites across the internet adopted GDPR just to remain complaint for a potential audience, forcing a site to become prohibitively unprofitable via legal restrictions in a financial sense is too much of an ask in most locales. Australia pushed the bar from France’s struggle without considering the ramifications.
I don’t know the right answer to the problem, but I know Google won’t play chicken. They are a corporation and function as such. Anyone who expects them to follow the old adage of: “Don’t be evil,” to its moral extreme has fallen behind the times. The moral backing ends where the dollar does.
Google has used similar threats before and (mostly) gotten their way. This time is a bit different because they may throw in the towel rather than win by default. A precedent in one nation doesn’t hold the same as another depending on the relationship between them. A ruling in India is valued differently than a ruling in Australia depending on if you’re in Europe or in Sri Lanka. One may impact you while the other is just yesterday’s page 7 headline.
Upping the Ante
The battle may be won or loss for this scenario, but either way, it just means the war is still on. If Google wins, they avert a more immediate split, but the risk just moves to a future date without real change. As the ante is upped, the ratio between risk and reward continues to change.
The internet is largely safe, but once the ideal of free speech appears to fall in a Western nation, it will fall for all linked nations. There is a subtle discrimination in allowing the internet to have fallen on the supposed fringes without reacting versus the idealized core. It tried to route around the censorship, but the routes were reduced and cornered to tighter and tighter bottlenecks.
The internet healed, but not fast enough to undo the damage. Each ideological schism caused complications to the overall functioning of the system. Almost everyone can agree on what is heinous, but where does murder end and manslaughter begin? The internet gets far subtler with its psychic impact on individuals and lawmakers.
Once money gets involved, the whole equation just gets more complicated. More and more businesses depend on digital revenue, but with platforms like YouTube experiencing the Adpocalypse and regional requirements for digital services evolving, it gets harder to know what actually works for a website. The right answer in one place can become a deal-breaker in another.
The globalized internet has been endangered for decades, but this is the first time it’s hit near extinction status. While it’s understandable why Australia is making the push they are, it also threatens to create a cascade of changes to the global operation of the internet. Economic powerhouses have tended to agree on a bare minimum for an open internet, but now money is involved.
We aren’t fighting a purely ideological war over something criminal or not. We aren’t debating what is socially acceptable or not. This is all about money.
This isn’t a condemnation of the discussion either. There’s a good reason to fight Google and demand more, but there are also complex ramifications to how you do so. It’s easy to make a legal challenge, but what are the ramifications of winning with a given argument?
The correctness of the defense and prosecution in this scenario is as gray as the results. There are arguments both moral and financial for the debate, and ramifications both financial and philosophical for the results. The wrong answer for the right reasons may be worth more than the right answer for the wrong ones.
This isn’t deciding what is wrong and what isn’t, it’s deciding where an internet business can and cannot function profitably. While Google very easily should pay more, telling them to do so in the wrong way just sets up the dominoes to split up the internet. There’s a difference between winning the lottery and robbing a bank when it comes to how you get your money.
The fact this discussion is even happening is the writing on the wall the more paranoid internet users have been expecting for some time. It’s hard to beat internet freedom on a philosophical level, but it’s easy once money becomes involved. The line where the dollar stops is blurry between individuals let alone nations. The global internet is in free fall, and this ruling will just catalyze the change, or merely stall it for the time being. It takes real effort to preserve digital freedom.
Originally published at https://somedudesays.com on January 24, 2021.