“You may be seated. Stop, please. Please sit down. Please, the curtains…” And then it was curtains for Slobodan Praljak. The words were those of a flustered presiding judge in an appeals court at the Hague where the last trials relating to the Bosnian genocide were held this week. As the court upheld Praljak’s sentence of 20 years — a life sentence, since he was 72 — the former Croat general produced a vial of poison and drank it, protesting that he was not a war criminal. He was accused of establishing concentration camps for Bosnian Muslims and destroying an Ottoman bridge. It is perversely comforting to be reminded that the urge to bring down Islamic architecture is not uniquely Indian.
Praljak’s dramatic public suicide recalls medieval Europe, when politically active families (the Borgias are disproportionate infamous) maintained poison cabinets at home and wore personal jewellery which would now be classified as chemical weapons. Mainstream TV channels have prudently carried only stills of the courtroom drama, but the Turkish Radio and Television Corporation, broadcasting from Istanbul, has the whole footage. Indeed, Constantinople can legitimately have a special interest in people who destroy Ottoman assets.
The last big poisoning case in Europe was the assassination of Russian double agent Alexander Litvinenko in November 2006 in the UK. He was poisoned with polonium 210 in his tea, shortly after he accused Vladimir Putin of ordering the murder of the journalist Anna Politkovskaya. It precipitated the worst UK-Russia political crisis since the Cold War, and images of Litvinenko in hospital had flooded the world’s media for a month, until he died of radiation sickness.
What’s flooding the media this week is an uproar over three videos posted by a British Islamophobe, second in command of the group Britain First, which US president Donald Trump retweeted in a characteristically rash moment. They are not very interesting, but as if to make up, a new parody handle, British First, is putting up some lively videos: ‘Road sign booby-trapped by Muslim gang floors patriot’ (the sign strikes back), ‘Dog owned by illegal immigrants chucks man in sea’ (he falls off a fishing pier while trying to kick the dog into the sea) and ‘Muslim-trained pigeon hurls man onto train track’ (the ‘man’ is in a dress and falls off the platform while trying to kick the pigeon).
Now, the deep stuff. This week, the focus is not on the media but on what lies beneath, the internet. Convergence has been a buzzword for almost 20 years, so long that it became a bit of joke in the last decade. But the financial logic behind a common distribution platform is compelling. Prominent radio and television stations already offer digital delivery, and the US newspaper industry has been shaken up by digital.
Now, a crucial battle is on for the future of consumers of news on the internet. On December 14, the US Federal Communications Commission will vote on a proposal floated in May by its chairman, Ajit Pai, which threatens to erase legislation favouring net neutrality, the ethical principle that no one shall suffer delay or denial of access to sites and services according to their ability to pay. There is a public uproar in America, millions have written to the FCC opposing the proposal, and Pai has received threatening calls, including some from legislators of Indian origin. And yet, the move may go through, and social media, which has become the world’s front page, may get an edge.
But India has wisely taken exactly the opposite tack. After a year of consultations, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India has put its weight behind net neutrality. With the exception of CDNs (content distribution networks) like Amazon’s CloudFront, specialised high-bandwidth services like telemedicine and corporate intranets, which do not access the public internet, it has imposed equal access everywhere. This was the core philosophy of the internet and drove its growth, and it is ironical that the US, where the internet was incubated, wants to leave it behind in the interest of corporate consolidation.
Access to stuff online is conditioned by another factor — DRM, or digital rights management. It has been around since 1983, but it exploded in this century as media went digital and sought technological protection from piracy. But it’s not about technology but law, argues a long post on the site of the Electronic Frontier Foundation by Cory Doctorow, co-editor of the Boing Boing blog. Which is the electronic avatar of the influential Eighties magazine bOING bOING. Which, along with R.U. Sirius’ Mondo 2000, channelled the mojo of American digital counterculture, whose space has been taken over by the mainstream now. It is interesting to see the old anxieties of the counterculture becoming real concerns which affect millions of people.