Saturday 21 April 2012

A contribution to the Guardian's "Battle for the internet" debate

The Guardian have been running a series of articles on whither the web? all week. Here is one contribution to the debate.
Every time somebody puts a magazine on a phone now and doesn't put it on to a web app ... we lose a whole lot of information to the general public discourse – I can't link to it, so I can't tweet it, I can't discuss it, I can't like it, I can't hate it.
That is recognisably the voice of a petulant teenager. So what if the petulant [teenager] can't link to it or tweet/discuss/like/hate it? Who cares? What difference does it make to anyone? None.

Except that actually it's the voice of Tim Berners-Lee in the Guardian.

There are serious issues raised by the Guardian's week-long seminar on the web. And there are childish ones. They seem to be linked.

The instant gratification of curiosity provided all but free by the web comes at a price. Our direct broadband connection costs are heavily subsidised by private sector interests. The problem with low/free costs is near-infinite demand. The huge energy resources required to keep our current incontinent use of the web on the road raise a green issue which perhaps should be added to the other issues being discussed. Energy consumption is regulated by price in every other sphere of our lives. Why not in the web? The price of web usage should increase.

The effectively free access to the Guardian over the web means that I haven't paid for a copy for years. How long can the Guardian or any other newspaper keep on providing a professional service under those circumstances? Not long. The Guardian seem to want to take this problem on the chin. They haven't moaned about it. But they've got to do something or we'll lose plurality in our news media and that's dangerous in a country, it undermines democracy. Should the Guardian go behind a pay wall? If they don't, out of some childish worry about what it will look like to the other kids, they'll die in the process. Cui bono?

It's not just newspapers who face this web quandary. The book industry, music and films are famously in the same boat. So are the commercial banks. They do all the heavy-lifting, know-your-customer, account maintenance, deposit guarantees, etc ..., and then up pops PayPal – very businesslike, very professional – and skims off a whole lot of commission between the customers and their banks. All these industries are having their modus operandi materially changed and even mortally threatened by a bad pun, "free" meaning liberal v. "free" meaning no cost. Paying the "proper" price for goods and services keeps everyone's noses clean and protects their survival. Giving things away for free is childish and self-destructive.

And then there's the UK government. Besotted by the success and the popularity of Amazon, PayPal, Google, Facebook et al, the children in the Cabinet Office, in particular, and the Department [for] Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) can't wait to stick all our data in the cloud and to hand over identity management to the likes of Google and Facebook. They want to be popular. They want to be like their heroes. The difficulties of keeping our data secure and of keeping control of it don't matter to the Cabinet Office and BIS, they just want to be allowed to play, I want to be able to link to it, I want to be able to tweet it, I want to discuss it and like it or hate it and I want it now.

Another issue the Guardian might consider, is that Amazon and Google pay no tax in the UK despite making a lot of money here. Amazon and Google are two of the most likely cloud computing suppliers to whom the Whitehall children may turn to take over the job of government which defeats them. Surely the Guardian doesn't wish to reward tax avoidance?

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