One of the original promises of the net was that it would transcend territories, another part of John Perry Barlow’s declaration of independence which hasn’t worked out. I have a memory from the late 80s, when I was working for a small software company in Sydney, helping establish a link via a modem to one of our customers in Tasmania. I can’t remember any of the technical details but I was fascinated by the appearance on our screen of letters and words from Hobart. It seemed magical but I didn’t have any kind of premonition of how this was the start of something which would change the world. It’s funny, looking back, that I would have found a phone call to Hobart much less exciting. We’ve had a much longer time to get used to that, or maybe a disembodied voice is easier to accept, psychologically, than the idea of the screen as a window to a far distant place.
Places and no-place: one of the excitements of the early web was not going to cyberspace, the imaginary no-place, but to a different place, connecting to a computer in America or Europe. Every form of social media I’ve gotten into, with the exception of Facebook, goes through an initial phase when the number of Australians on the platform is so small that the rhythm of the space is set by the American day-night cycle, and it’s possible that the international reputation we’ve acquired for being utter shitposters is based on the fact that we always start out as honorary night crew, bringing our slacking-off-at-work energy to an internet where (weighted by population) it’s 2AM. After a few years an Australian community will build up: or, as was the case with Mastodon, I moved to an Australian server, and more of the people I’m reading are on the same circadian cycle. The disjunction between the Australian internet and the rest of the Anglophone world is still there, though. Territoriality, the brute fact that we’re living on a spinning sphere, keeps reasserting itself.
It feels to me as if the past decade has seen a lot of developments which have reterritorialised the web:
More and more of the web is running on AWS (and its minor competitors) so the ways in which Amazon has divided up the planet start to matter to how systems are designed, your code isn’t running in “the cloud” but in Asia-Pacific Sydney Zone 2 (and hopefully somewhere else as well, in case that goes down);
If your data is sensitive, there might be legislative requirements about which territory it’s stored on, and your cloud provider will likely lie to you about that, and anyway no matter where the disks are physically, the company that runs them can probably be ordered to hand over the keys if a US government agency tells it to;
The rise of China as a community of internet users with a parallel set of services behind the semi-permeable membrane of the Great Firewall;
The EU’s data protection and privacy laws, which have affected people running web services no matter where they are;
The rise of Actual Nazis and the ways in which social media platforms have had to deal with the fact that fascist propaganda is illegal in many European states, while at the same time shuffling their feet and shrugging when confronted with why they can’t do that in the Anglosphere;
The big crackdown on piracy which saw search sites like the Pirate Bay blocked at the ISP level in Australia, because that’s another part of the internet’s infrastructure which is in a particular place and run by corporations which are subject to laws. Of course, dedicated users found ways around this.
There’s also Australia’s post-NBN sense of aggrieved entitlement about having slow internet, but let’s not get into that.
I was kicking all of these ideas around when the Facebook ban on news and community pages in Australia happened. I think that Facebook, the government and the mainstream media are all wrong and acting in massive bad faith here, and I don’t want to go into it much more than that, but what I found interesting about the coverage of the ban was that none of it addressed how addictive services like Facebook are. There was a lot of grumbling about how we shouldn’t let a private corporation control the ways in which we use the internet as a community, but little acknowledgement that the private corporation is as devoted to keeping our eyeballs on their service as a casino is to keeping its customers in front of the slot machines. I tend to see problems like this in such a light because I regularly have to get off Mastodon and even my RSS feed because I’m so damn compulsive about it, but I’m obviously not the only one with this problem.
The other thing I noticed was that people my age, especially those with technical skills, talked about organisations hosting their own websites instead of relying on Facebook as if this were a simple thing. It’s easy to forget that before social media started, more than a decade ago, the population of the net was much more tech savvy, on average, than it now is, and even then, most people with a web presence were using something like Wordpress to make the job simpler, rather than writing HTML and FTP-ing it up to a server. Since then, everyone has gotten online: part of what made Facebook as powerful as they are is that it means that your local school or volunteer organisation can get something on the net without the need to find a helpful nerd to wire all the bits together.
And for a sizeable proportion of the audience now, Facebook is the net; referring to Facebook and Twitter as “websites” is funny because it’s a deliberate harking back to the old days, but it’s a joke that’s meaningless, I suspect, unless you’re the sort of person who could run up their own website in a weekend, which is itself a place of privilege.
Another theme I was rolling around in my head, before the Facebook ban, was free speech, and how the internet seems to have been having the same pointless argument about it since the nineties. From my dim memories of law school, freedom of speech has always been associated with a jurisdiction: it’s the freedom to say something here, or a restraint on the power of the government of this place to stop me saying something here. This is why legendary cases of censorship, like that of Ulysses, always bring with them stories of people smuggling copies into the country: there’s always another territory with different rules to yours. And it’s why I think the notion of “free speech on the internet” is in some sense incoherent, as it leaves out the where.
The earliest laws restricting freedom of speech were about verbal speech acts which disrupted community standards — blasphemy, sedition and slander — and it wasn’t until the printing press, which meant that I could make thousands of copies of my ideas and disseminate them, that censorship in the modern sense came into being. Presses were expensive machines which were hard to hide, and so laws could be made which licensed them: this is not different, in principle, to how the Australian government has made ISPs block pirate services. In some ways, the fact that people need an ISP to get on the net makes it easier, not harder, for the state to control it.
Once most people’s experience of the internet is mediated through a handful of services like Facebook, a lot of this becomes irrelevant, because it becomes not a battle between the individual and the state but an audience and a corporation, or the customers and management of a shopping mall. The tech corporations still have to respect state rules like the European bans on fascism, but their dealings with governments like Australia’s are more like the negotiations between a shopping mall’s owners and a corrupt city council.
I'd love it if this episode made people take a good look at how they use the internet, both in terms of community reliance, and their own individual psychology, but I don't think that's very likely.