Most schools and libraries impose restrictions on Internet access. To protect kids, so they say, but also to keep users from doing things they shouldn’t. It’s all about control. But it doesn’t work very well, because the filters have major flaws. People trying to access legitimate sites to do research or to download material needed for projects are often stymied. (Try getting information on breast exams, for example.) And the kids quickly manage to find loopholes in the filters that let them access games and other naughty stuff anyway.
One solution might be better filtering software. Another is to do what the director of our library chose to do; just dump the filters and allow patrons free access. We are there to facilitate freedom of information, not to peer over our glasses suspiciously and pass judgement. But if we walk by the computer and notice someone drooling over hardcore porn, we inform them politely that this is hardly appropriate in a place where toddlers are running about, and they may consider their computer privileges revoked until they can behave themselves.
At home, we don’t have filters, either. Our kids have free access and we don’t interfere in their choices. We’ve talked to them about the dangers of cyberbullies and stalkers, about porn and advertising (often indistinguishable). We’ve taught them to think critically and to ask us if there’s any question. I check in with them now and then to see what they’re up to. I’m usually amazed at what they’ve dug up. They play with it, they get inspired, come up with their own spin, and send it out for somebody else to find.
The Internet is a lawless place, where a wrong turn could land you in a bad neighborhood full of violence and predatory cruelty. You need to learn how to avoid those neighborhoods. The Internet is also a loud, frantically busy marketplace, where you can make a fortune or get fleeced down to your underwear. You need to learn how to find trustworthy vendors and keep the pickpockets from robbing you blind. There are thieves and pirates around every corner. If you set up shop in this market, you run the risk of getting robbed. But you also have the opportunity to make your name.
The Internet is redefining the meaning of intellectual property. Part of the new paradigm is Creative Commons licensing, trying to impose a little structure on what’s happening anyway. Those who cling to the old paradigm fume about the crime of piracy, the need for legislation, the problem of enforcing traditional copyright laws. There’s talk of regulating the Internet to get rid of the bad neighborhoods, to crack down on criminal activity. Some are trying to work within the realities of the new paradigm to stop piracy. Others look at piracy as a blessing in disguise.
The Internet is a reflection of all the human beings who feed into it. Humans have their evil side, which thrives on brutally exploiting others for their own pleasure and profit. But humans also have their social side, which loves chatting and sharing. Most marvelous of all, we are creative. We do art, and lots of it. The Internet is the greatest creating and sharing tool since the printing press. Maybe even since the invention of language itself. It’s astonishing, amazing, utterly unpredictable, and completely out of control.
Never mind should, can the Internet be regulated? Some governments try very hard, with a certain amount of success. The results are not very encouraging. Rules designed to protect often backfire or have unintended consequences. Creativity and communication get stifled in the process. Revolutions happen anyway. Geeks and idealists always find a way to burrow through the walls. So do criminals.
We may have to accept that this is the new paradigm. Let the freedom to create and share roll, because the benefits in artistic and intellectual growth may prove far greater than the ugly dark side which will inevitably grow with it. It’s like massive climate change; if we can’t control it, then we have to figure out how to live with it and even thrive in it. Adapting; that’s something humans do very well.
It’s not about control. It’s about learning how to deal with freedom.