The World Wide Web turned 25 this year. A quarter of a century ago, the first website went live, and since then, the world as we know it has changed. The internet is probably the fastest way a new technology has become old. There are generations who have never known the world without it being connected. And yet, it is safe to say that if put into a corner, most of us might have a tough time trying to exactly describe what the World Wide Web is, and how it operates. Like many massification technologies, the internet has quickly evolved from being the playground for geeks to tinker with and build digital networks, into a blackbox that we access through our seductively designed interfaces.
At a technological level, the internet was a standardisation protocol that allowed for distributed databases on remote computers to interact with each other using digital connections. At the heart of the internet was the impulse to share, and to share safely, new information that would lead to collaborative knowledge production and stronger network communities. The World Wide Web saw this potential of sharing information quickly as one of the most promising aspects of human futures. Sir Tim Berners-Lee, in his first vision of the WWW, had proposed that the capacity to share information, without loss of quality, would create new societies of equality and equity. In this vision, the website was a way of sharing information, expression, political desire, personal longing and social ideas, thus creating connected societies that would be able to consolidate the sum total of all human experience.
That historical moment of the technological architecture and the ideological articulation of the internet and the WWW are critical because as the internet has become increasingly privatised, with intermediaries, Internet Service Providers, and content producers claiming more and more of the digital turf, we have seen continued attack on the principles of sharing. We have, in the last few years, seen draconian crackdowns on people sharing their political views on social media, arresting young people for their political dissent online. We have witnessed the emergence of paywalls that close down content, criminalising students trying to access new knowledge towards their education. We have seen the policing of online creative spaces, monitoring users who engage in cultural production, forcing them into repressive intellectual property regimes that they do not necessarily want.
Most of these attacks on sharing have been fuelled by private companies who see the economic benefits of creating media monopolies out of the internet. These attacks have been particularly vicious because they also recognise the potentials of digital connectivity to completely disrupt the extraordinary powers of crowds who can co-create the biggest encyclopaedia in the word and undermine the corporatisation of cultural objects. And yet, in the interest of profits, there has been persistent lobbying from the private owners of the public goods of the internet, to crack down on sharing and access through legal punishment.
Like many developing countries, India has been resisting the enforcing of Intellectual Property Rights promoted by private lobbyists. In doing so, it recognises that emerging geographies need more open, universal and affordable access to information and that the true potential of digitisation lies in the capacity of the web to enable unfettered access to knowledge and cultural artefacts. Despite pressure from global lobbies, the Indian state has continued to emphasise that access for public good overrides the interest of private right holders, and has favoured the digital user’s right to access material which they might not always have the economic rights for. Some scholars say that this is where the state emphasises that the moral rights of access to information supersede the legal rights that close the possibilities of access.
Or at least, the Indian state recognised the need of its still-being-connected population to have free access till recently. With the new law that enforces a block on torrent and file sharing sites, warnings of punitive action, and an unexplained ban on websites that most users have been using for knowledge and cultural products, the state seems to have buckled under private lobbying and also stopped caring for the rights of its citizens. There will always be a split vote when it comes to figuring out the pros and cons of piracy, and it is important to recognise the right of the cultural and knowledge producer to protect their economic interests. The debates have been interesting because it was difficult to take sides and required a balancing act of negotiation between different parties.
However, with this new intervention, the Indian government seems to have taken sides, and made up its mind, that for the future of Digital India, it is going to favour the corporation, the company, the private profit making entity over the individual, the collective, and the public that sought to access information through the fundamental principle of the digital web — sharing.
Nishant Shah is a professor of new media and the co-founder of The Centre for Internet & Society, Bangalore.