Volume 38, Number 2: March/April 2004

The World Wide Web Is Ten Years Old!

Excuse me, may I have your cell phone? I see you’re wearing a pager; may I have that too? Your lap top computer, if you don’t mind? And I’ll take the palm pilot I see in your shirt pocket.

Feel like somebody’s bewildered, possibly hostile naked lunch without your high tech toys?

Welcome to the wrong side of the Digital Divide, the developing world in which hundreds of millions of poor people in the south are left behind the more prosperous people of the north at the lightning speed of the latest computer chip.

The Digital Divide, and how to bridge it, was just one of the issues tackled at The United Nations World Summit on the Information Society December 8-12 in Geneva. Several years in the planning, WSIS was attended by more than 50 heads of state, 6,000 delegates from business, government and civil society, and, for security reasons, 2,000 soldiers, and 700 policemen. Canada appeared to have two Prime Ministers at the time of this event, Jean Chretien and Paul Martin, but neither of them attended.

WSIS marked the tenth anniversary of the World Wide Web and acknowledged that the earth is firmly into the Information Age in which computers have revolutionized commerce, health, education and the media. It was also an important event in the unfolding tug of war between global government and business to decide who will control the future of the Internet.

But, other than a crisp report from CBC’s brilliant documentary producer Bob Carty on Radio One’s The Current, the summit on the Information Society got almost zero coverage in Canadian media.

In one of two stories I found during the run-up to the Summit, the National Post explained this was because “many observers expect the Summit to accomplish little.” Andrew McLaughlin, a Harvard University Fellow called it “a blabberfest not likely to produce any results.”

Setting aside the Post’s omniscient and pre-emptive approach to journalism, evidently shared by most of Canada’s mainstream media, the Information Summit was more likely ignored for two reasons.

First, because no event or idea sponsored by the United Nations can get a fair hearing in North America. The corporate press on this continent sees that organization as little more than another potential level of government seeking another potential level of taxes. The UN also represents the only obvious threat to the USA’s less and less covert plans for world hegemony; nothing good can come of that.

Second, because the World Summit on the Information Society brought to the surface some urgent issues currently understood mainly by elite media and technology owners who know, along with Goebbels, that “we control events better when we control information.”

The new information society has, for example, brought us astonishing new levels of surveillance. Many businesses now use subtle software to spy on their employees at their desks. We are tracked by CCTV (closed circuit television) as we line up at the airport, at the bank, in traffic – in big cities like London, England, as often as 300 times on an average day. We can go to a novelty store and legally purchase an invisible system that can monitor and document the activities in our own household – or somebody else’s.

The speed of technological development has thrown privacy issues into high gear, but for some observers, these pale beside two other accelerated problems; intellectual property rights and information control itself. As it stands, intellectual property owners, the producers of music, and movies, for instance, are posturing as righteous victims of unethical mobs who steal their work. People who download and share their files with no profit motive have been criminalized and made subject to the full power of the legal system. We have yet to hear the other side of that story; that intellectual property owners are the thieves, and consumers their hapless targets.

And, at the moment, ordinary people are enjoying the relief of freedom of expression and free exchange of information provided by the Internet; its spontaneity and diversity are new and still exhilarating. But many moves, both technological and bureaucratic, are threatening to shut it down and turn it into the same wasteland as cable television. We haven’t heard that story either.