The Internet greatly reduces the costs of creating, sharing, and finding information. This shift holds great promise, but it’s not an unmitigated blessing. We find four examples of this change, and the tensions it creates, today:
- Jay Rosen reflects on changes in journalism since the Web became a popular news medium. The benefit: traditional gatekeepers (editors, reporters, even advertisers) don’t dictate what is, and is not, news. The challenge: fights over truth and accuracy. Which leads us to story #2:
- The New York Times reports on Wikipedia’s challenges in managing fights over what content should comprise the encyclopedia’s entries on certain topics (apparently including human rights in China and Christina Aguilera – though I was able to edit Aguilera’s entry earlier today, in a true leap forward for human knowledge). Wikipedia is, in some ways, an attempt to reify the “marketplace of ideas” prized by European Enlightenment thinkers such as John Milton and John Stuart Mills – truth competes with falsehood and, ultimately, triumphs. The problems are twofold: first, falsehood’s adherents may be determined to keep editing an entry. Second, as my colleague and boss John Palfrey noted, truth itself may be disputed – was Alexander Hamilton born in 1757 or 1755? How should Wikipedia deal with the controversies over the entry for President George W. Bush?
- We may worry about how networked computers, cheap storage, and powerful processors – in short, easy data mining – make so much more information available to the Bush administration than to those in Hamilton’s time. My former employer, IBM, is proposing the use of encryption as a step to mitigate privacy worries about data aggregation and analysis. (The Berkman Center, with the expert aid of my colleagues and friends John Clippinger, Mary Rundle, Urs Gasser, Lewis Hyde, Jonathan Zittrain, and Bill McGeveran among others, is running a conference today and tomorrow on identity questions – it’s Webcast!)
- Finally, Israel (following in the wake of other countries such as South Korea, Thailand, and India) has started to worry over Google Earth’s photos of some of its military installations (though apparently the engine doesn’t include photos of the Negev nuclear facility). The fear seems to be less that these photos are available than that they’re available so readily and cheaply. (Is it relevant that Google Earth has shifted its policy to one that treats Israel the same as, say, Grand Cayman? Or should the company be mindful that Israel faces greater threats than Cayman, hurricanes aside?)
These questions – and many others about the Internet, its regulability, and its needs for regulation – revolve around the twin poles of the Net’s potential for sharing knowledge and the threats that arise from doing so. In a future post I’ll talk about why I think this binary position is inapposite and unhelpful, but it’s powerful, prevalent, and probably pernicious. (Enough alliteration!) Thoughts welcomed in the comments.