It’s a historical truism that it’s difficult to perceive change as it occurs. But while most histories of the internet do chronicle structural and aesthetic changes—such as the acceleration of data rates, the development of new browsers, and the cleaner, more usable interfaces of Web 2.0 apps—what seems more important is the way we’ve progressively grown to incorporate it so thoroughly into our lives that it has become an afterthought. Every day, we participate in digital networks with friends, we share and consume news and entertainment, and we learn about our own physical surroundings, using the internet almost as an extension of our own faculties. Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia, Amazon, YouTube, Google—the list goes on, and it’s a list that serves as more than just the ways we spend time and the channels through which we receive information.
The internet got this way because it is an immensely successful experiment in laissez-faire. At first an incoherent network of inconsequential sites, it has gradually become more organized by search engines, which put value on interconnection and direct people to the most relevant sites, constructing a sort of road system between the centers of traffic. This of course limits the exposure of sites outside of that main network, but even within this progressively more structured system the fact remains that you can make anything you want, and if it’s any good, people will want more of it. This radical freedom of the internet is what has allowed sites like YouTube and Wikipedia to evolve, with the most promising models generating the most user support and coming to serve as open forums for creativity and learning. But while we may take it for granted, the balance of the internet ecosystem which provides these services is less secure than we might have thought.
You’ve probably heard of SOPA and PIPA, which are pieces of legislation that aim to grant unprecedented regulatory control over the internet to the entertainment industry, and threaten to fundamentally upset this balance. I won’t get into a discussion of why they’re bad legislation—you can find various opinions on that online. What I will say is that the introduction of these bills, and the resulting outcry against them, are some of the most potent signals that the internet has become something entirely new and different from its original self. The organic spectacle of protest is often what it takes for a disorganized body to unify as a coherent political entity. On January 18th, thousands of websites joined in protest against the proposed legislation and blacked out their home pages, while millions of web users signed petitions against the bills. All this in defense of the internet. It is in this very response that we can perceive massive popular concern for maintaining the particular character of the internet. We don’t want YouTube to change or go away, we want Wikipedia to continue providing free information, and we certainly don’t want censorship of this powerful forum for free speech. It would seem that, far from seeing the internet as simply a tool, we have come to see it as a form of ecosystem that needs preservation and protection.
When something matters to us, we fight for it. But sometimes we only realize something is meaningful when we find ourselves already fighting.