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Constraints Limiting the Emancipatory Potential of the Internet

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The history and development of information and communication technology (ICT), which covers the Internet and the Web, has gone through millions of steps since computers were first introduced to humankind in the 1940s. The evolution of computing and digital information dissemination opened many avenues of human studies, and the fields of concerns become more and more diverse and complex as time goes by.

            But among the many branches of new media studies, the Internet is the most interesting, not only because of its effect to the various academic disciplines such as sociology, economics, anthropology, information systems, politics and others, but also because of its emancipatory potentials.

The Internet’s seemingly unlimited potentials fascinate people because of man’s natural instinct to learn and to know. This paper, however, will try to study whether the Internet, a continuously growing and evolving creation of mankind, has indeed limitless emancipatory potentials that are uncontrollable and unstoppable.

            Since its introduction to the global community, the Internet has been a focus of debates and studies by scholars, scientists and digital enthusiasts alike. Because of its astonishing success, it generated an equal amount of problems that vary in level and capacity. According to (Livingstone, 2005, 10) , the “Internet today faces considerable challenges.” She adds:

“There are problems of scale and capacity, of network architecture and infrastructural robustness, of international legal and regulatory frameworks, and of public trust, security and e-crime, all these accompanying the opportunities widely associated with the internet – its potential for enhancing global communication, revitalizing democratic processes, facilitating economic development and trade, reconfiguring social relations and many others.”

            And what makes Internet studies more complicated is the beauty of its fast evolution, along with the digital technology. Everyday, multi-billion companies that have privatized and took control of the net and the worldwide web continue to discover new ways how to reach and pamper the market — faster and better. Competition also escalates in all branches of the Internet – from the worldwide web to the emailing system, multi-player games, e-commerce, virtual reality games, e-group and file sharing systems, telemarketing and networking, etc.

            With this reality at hand, it becomes more inevitable to carefully study the future of internet, its potentials, its limitations, its effect to the society, the issues associated with it and its overall impact to the development and growth of the global community.

            But before this paper tries to focus on the issues, problems and concerns encompassing the Internet, it would be wise to trace the principles and foundation of its conception. Along with it, the history of worldwide web as one of the biggest and fastest communication and information tool in the Internet.

            In their book, Power Without Responsibility, (Curran & Seaton, 2003) say that the Internet has gone through four main phases. The first phase was during the 1970s when it was used by the scientists as a way of sharing expensive computer resources, exchanging research data and corresponding through email (Curran & Seaton, 2003).

Internet then was used a powerful research tool of the so-called “techno-elite.” The next phase was in the mid-80s when the internet entered its “sub-cultural and proto-commercial phase.” (Curran, Seaton 2003, 233). According to them, this was the period when digital enthusiasts declared that the Internet “was a life-changing, world redeeming invention.”

            The third phase was from the later 1980s to the mid-90s. It was a period of transition when the deployment of the net as a research tool and subcultural playground gave way to commercial use and the fourth phase in the mid-90s to present, which marked the commercialization of cyberspace (Curran and Seaton, 2003). At present, net companies directly negotiate and communicate with the public, while advertising and marketing over the internet became massive and widespread. Livingstone (2005, 16) studied that in 2003, 76 per cent Americans had used the internet and 65 per cent had home access.

Meanwhile, in United Kingdom, 58 per cent of the UK adults had used the internet by February 2004, with 49 per cent having internet access (Livingstone, 2005).

            The internet is an offspring of the Pentagon, according to Curran and Seaton (2003, 239). When its competing country, Russia, launched its first space satellite in 1957, the US put up the Advance Research Projects Agency (ARPA).

The move aimed to mobilize American universities and research laboratories behind US’s advocacies. The US government wanted to improve interactive computing and established the ARPAnet project, the world’s first advanced computer network

            And while the Internet is a brainchild of US, the worldwide web was invented by the Europeans. Tim Berners-Lee, a scientist without a Ph.D., was a temporary fellow at the European physics laboratory CERN when he invented the web in 1990.

Berners-Lee himself, in a book he wrote The World Wide Web: Past, Present and Future, acknowledged that without the internet, the web would not have been born. In several interviews, he said it owes it to Vint Cerf and Bob Khan who defined the “Internet Protocol” (IP) by which packets are sent on from one computer to another until they reach destination. And also to Paul Barran, who invented the packet-switching.

            Berbers-Lee explains that the internet is a network of networks, which is made of computers and cables while the web is an abstract space of information. On the web, you find document, sounds, videos and the connections are hypertext links, not computers and cables. The web exists because of programs which communicate between computers on the net (Berners-Lee).

In 1995, Microsoft sort-of privatized the internet for mass market by introducing the Microsoft Explorer and the internet became widely used among businesses and public elites in Western societies by the mid 1990s. (Livingstone 2005)

            The internet was born in the tradition of public service, so many believe. The US government first used it to pursue the government’s advocacies, although the access is limited to the scientists and the National Defense personnel. The same is true with the creation of the web. Tim Berners-Lee was inspired by the idea of providing access to a public good and bringing people together.

            But commercialization of the internet, as well as the web, has created a problem on the free-flow of information over the digital community. Internet traders and entrepreneurs came up with several strategies how to “control” the market in exchange of profit by imposing copyright. On top of this, several institutions and governments also imposed restrictions and control over the net to protect their country’s interests and campaigns.

            This gives us the idea that the internet is not at all a “perfect super-avenue of information and systems.” Same with other fields of human studies, it also has its limitations.

Constraints Limiting the Emancipatory Power of the Internet

            To begin with, several discourses have already been made on the technological constraints that limit the use and development of internet and information technology at large, for that matter, is several countries outside United States and United Kingdom. Except for highly progressive countries like China and Japan in Asia, most of the underdeveloped and developing countries in the said region could not be at par with Western countries in terms of information and communications technology.

            Despite ICTs rapid progress, many countries are left due to technological and social constraints caused by their countries financial woes or economic status. There are problems in compatibility between technologies or lack of reliable sources of power.

Meanwhile, the exponential growth of internet traffic due to the exploding number of www servers also creates problem among countries using slower equipment (UNESCO). At the same time, Dave Carter, author of the article titled “Digital Democracy or Information Aristocracy?” from the book The Governance of Cyberspace edited by B. Louder (1997 p134), said that “the development of new services and applications which take advantage of upgraded and enhanced infrastructure is currently dominated by the multinational corporate sector….”

            These are all part of the so-called “Digital-Divide,” an economic phenomenon (Livingstone, 2005, 13) that differentiates developed and developing countries. Several factors are also being considered in determining such differences such as geography, socio-economic status, ethnicity, gender, among others.

These different factors triggered several empirical projects that would later determine who uses what and where or how fast and what. A growing number of research (Livingstone, 2005, 15) showed that the divide between the “haves and have-nots” was decreasing but the gap is far from closing. It was proven that the improving and increasing access to ICTs seemed to retain rather than eradicate the distinction between those who have greater capacity to access as against the less disadvantaged.

            Other researches, on the other hand, focused on the quality of access and its range. Take for example, the difference between dial-ups and broadband. Those who can afford to hook up via broadband are far more privileged than those using the net through dial-up.

This technological constraint that is commonly seen among developing countries poses a big problem on the neo-liberalists assumption that the internet is for all and that it should be made accessible to all. According to Livingstone (2005, 16), “providing everyone with equal access is all but impossible in a fast-moving, commercial context in which access is largely privatized within homes and workplaces.”

            Take for example what happened to Trinidad and Jamaica in 1999. A research conducted by Daniel Miller and Don Slater as narrated in their discourse, “Comparative Ethnography of New Media” (Curran J., Gurevich M. eds, 2005, 310), showed that Trinidad and Jamaica took different paths in 1999 with regards to the development of ICTs in their respective countries. Trinidad embraced the Internet while Jamaica favored mobile phones.

            Although the study is more inclined to negate the generalization that internet causes cultural disintegration as part of ethnographic studies,  and therefore of sociology and the relation of media to people and cultures, it also interesting to link the Trinidad research to the Digital divide brought by economics.

            Miller and Slater pointed out that aside from the fact that Trinidadians like to talk at length and more educated, their government also opted for the internet rather than mobile phone simply because they have the capability and the money to buy computers.

The Trinidad government can sustain its campaign to make its residents internet-literate because being an oil country it was able to use the money from its oil sales since 1920s to invest on its education system. Meanwhile, the Jamaican government was under the influence of a minister of commerce with more inclination and interest in telecommunications. Although the main reason why Jamaica went for the mobile phone due to political preference, it is still evident in the study that Digicel, the supplier of mobile phones which made it big in Jamaica, came up with marketing promos that are more affordable to an average Jamaican than the cost of a computer for the internet.

Going back to Livingstone (2005, 16), she said that the “dominant factor in the digital divide is that of a race, with some getting ahead and other left behind.”

Livingstone (2005, 16) argues that even if in a moment, the digital divide shrinks over time, it is “naïve to believe that the virtual world can overturn fundamental inequalities of social stratification…”

Another big obstacle on the development and potentials of the internet are the political and institutional restraints. Non-democratic governments or communities who oppose the optimists’ idea of free information and exponential power of the internet have initiated censorship and control over the use of the net in the past years.

One of the leading countries that had imposed drastic and unacceptable control on the use of the internet is the Peoples Republic of China, a communist country that achieved several accomplishments in ICTs and aspires in realizing a digital leapfrog at par with its Western counterparts.

However, despite its achievements in ICT and its strong campaign for the digital leap that would eventually improve its economy, China is now being challenged by various digital liberalists and enthusiasts because of its censorship laws that has affected the world wide web as well. This challenge is on top of the internal digital divide in China and the problems of bureaucratic turf wars and technological time lag behind advanced industrialized countries like US and UK.

In the book, China and the Internet: Politics of the Digital Leap Forward edited by Hughes & Wacker (2003), China’s applied principles in the pursuit of ICT excellence was exposed in all angles.

In the first chapter of the book, Xiudian Dai explores the initiatives taken by China to develop its ICT. Dai (2003 ) enumerated China;s policies and programs for the development and ICTs in technological modernization and its funding of leading universities like the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

According to Dai (2003, 76), the most important program of China was the ‘863’ Programme which aimed to promote execellence in scientific research and the building of high capacity in national technologies.

China also launched its Informatisation of the National Economy (INE) programme in belief that it could increase China’s opportunity to leapfrog in both technological and economic development.

But China’s internet censorship is one of the blatant examples of limitations faced by the net. Wacker (2003, 61) discusses the censorship and its relation and impact to the global digital community. The national People’s Congress of China has passed a law in Mainland China which paved way for the creation of the so-called Golden Shield project. This is a censorship system that blocks the selective contents of the web by preventing IP addresses from being routed through the internet gateways.

The firewall part of the system, also known outside mainland China as the Great Firewall of China, also selectively engages in DNS poisoning when particular sites are requested.

The system automatically blocks information about known dissidents, events or news that are detrimental to the image of China. For example, BBC and Hong Kong news are heavily censored.

Other topics or subjects or websites that are being blocked include Tibetan Independence, Falun Gong, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, Dalai Lama, Taiwan and Taiwan Independence, Yahoo Hong Kong, Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. Even Wikipedia and Wikimedia sites were also blocled in China as well as free internet services like geocities, blogspot and dictionary.com.

These regulations imposed by China prompted web giants to concede with the local policies and censorship. In exchange for the installation in China’s soil, Google, for example, made a significant compromise with China in February 2006 by blocking websites which the Chinese Government illegalized.

Because of its strong censorship policies, China was attacked by several criticisms while optimists and neo-liberalists lobbied for a free flow of information in China. The Chinese government was also faced by several internal problems like the lousy implementation of the regulations due to alleged uncoordinated act of the Chinese bureaucracy.

One major problem that haunts China is the issue of jurisdiction over the internet. The State Council Information Office has the mandate to regulate internet in China but other offices have a say as well. Legal scholars say that the frequency of issuance of regulations in China with regards to the internet is a symptom of its ineffectiveness in totally regulating the internet business.

Meanwhile, an alliance of investors and researchers from at least 26 companies in US, Europe and Australia urged businesses to protect freedom of expression and pledge to monitor technology firms that conduct business in countries violating human rights like China.

These companies are believed to be not comfortable with the Mainland China’s policies against free flow of information in the internet.

Non-democratic and authoritarian governments like China often believe that internet could be a powerful tool for political advocacies against the bureaucracy. Like in the case of Falun Gong, information about him and his sect was banned by China because he used the net to mobilize international protest against the Chinese government repression.

According to Curran and Seaton (2003, 267), “the net provides a means of expression that is well adapted to collective forms of organization.” The net played a big role in the planning and mobilization of the anti-globalization protests in 1999 to 2002 (Curran, Seaton 2003, 267).

In the case of BBC, it was also believed that it is a haven for radicals. No wonder China was very skeptical of its influence to Mainland Chinese.

The power of the net and the virtual world to trigger a drastic change in a particular community or locality is not, however, conclusive. Curran and Seaton (2003, 261), in one of their arguments, pointed that the “on-line world is shaped powerfully by the dynamics of the off-line world.” They further said:

“This limits the power of the net to effect progressive change. Thus, in most advanced liberal democracies, political activism is a minority activity and many people’s interest in politics, in ordinary circumstances, is limited. For example, tracking surveys in the USA show that, between 1980 and 2000, less than one in ten Americans attended a political meeting, gave to political funds or helped a political organization.” (Curran, Seaton 2003, 261).

            On the other hand, while China and others believe that the internet could be detrimental to a locality’s development or political stability, many instances and success stories were aided by the use of internet. Instead of imposing censorship, several communities in Europe implemented campaigns and projects that involved the community, thereby effectively using the internet for e-government.

One of these projects is the Digital City of Amsterdam. It was started in 1994 as a 10-week experiment, aiming to improve communication between the legislative council and the local people (Curran and Seaton 2003, 263).

The project drew thousands of participants while the community was fully mobilized. Much has been achieved and at some point, it was proven that the internet could be an important tool in pursuing social reforms.

However, Curran and Seaton (2003, 249) still stressed that e-government is not “representative.” There are still several limitations and problems that have occurred in Amsterdam. Aside from the fact that some people are reluctant to participate on line due to their belief that it is not a serious matter, there is the issue of the need for debate and deliberation.

            Meanwhile, there is another success story for online participation in government decisions was the USA’s Move On campaign. It persuaded the Congress to drop impeachment proceedings against then President Bill Clinton in 1999 (Livingstone 2005, 10).

Other example is the new social movement that involved the Zapatistas in Mexico. They used the internet to organize protests in Seattle in 1999 to oppose the globalization policies of the World Trade Organization.

            To sum up the arguments and issues on the political and institutional constraints on the internet, it is therefore safe to assume (given the examples) that there is however, no definitive answer as to whether the free flow of information and free market should be limited or not vis-à-vis with the internet’s role in human development.

            Another constraint, however, that affects the potentials of the internet are the ethical and legal concerns that have been debated for so long by the pessimists and the optimists.

            Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights reads: “Anyone has a right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” (UNESCO).

This basic human right gives everyone the power and privilege to speak and think freely, giving a heavy license to democracy. But the extent to which freedom should be used should be widely discussed and studies. Is there too much freedom in the internet? Are pornographic websites and others deliberately influence violence or racism part of this human rights protection? Where would the freedom end? And how can we balance it?

            These are just few of the questions that should be addressed with regards to the role of internet in association with democracy.

Censorship in the internet is sometimes a product of such concerns by the “conservatives” and pessimists, who believe that there should be limit and control of information in the net, to protect children and other cultural minorities affected by too much democracy in the virtual world. There is also the issue of right to privacy, which is likewise protected by the laws for human rights.

            In some areas, certain technologies were banned and restricted to prevent the flow of information, particularly to the reach of children. According to UNESCO, an international convention was held in 1989 to encourage development of appropriate guidelines for the protection of children from violent and injurious information.

             The imposition of intellectual property rights, both by the governments and digital magnates prove to be another problem limiting the potentials of the internet.

With the onset of IPRs imposed by major players in cyberspace and the imposition of technological control, less and less information can be accessed by those who cannot afford and those who cannot provide.

Again, this area of concern goes back to the digital divide, wherein such restrictions and control affects the number of users of the internet. This is quite contrary to the first principle of internet and web fathers – to provide free service and wide access to the public.

            The principle of technological control was opposed by the leftists, including the so-called Cyberchartists (Curran, Seaton 2003, 234).

According to Curran and Seaton (2203, 241), “they are the informal community of hackers who set about opposing proprietary software programs whose use was restricted by private patent or copyright.”

              History tells us that hackers provided open channels for free expression and continuous flow of information. The cyberchartist revolt stared in the early 80s when Richard Stallman (Curran, Seaton 2003, 234), a radical programmer, put up the Free Software Foundation.

When he was hit by illness, he slowed down but his work was pursued by Linus Torvalds. Torvalds filled the gap and developed the missing kernel of the GNU system, Stallman’s work.

Their community completed and developed the GNU/Linux system, one of the most reliable software in the world at par with Bill Gates’ Microsoft.

            By launching free systems for all, Curran and Seaton (2003, 241) said “cyberchartists perpetuated the moral economy of academic science, with its belief in cooperation, freedom and open debate in pursuit of scientific advance.” The cyberchartists also destabilized an attempt to impose a market regime on the internet dictated by the giant computer firms, making available free service and open source to the public.

            In a way, these radicals are in some way like new media studies scholars. David Gauntlett, author of Web.Studies:Rewriting Media Studies for the Digital Age, is said to be an optimist. He himself says he is an optimist. His opening chapter, “Web Studies, What’s New” provides a very good introduction of the web study.

It also speaks of the web’s contribution to human studies and explores the possibilities of wide potentials of the net. Meanwhile, the last chapter of the book, written by Richard Berger predicts the fate of the information age.

Both believe that the internet is defining the modern world and many avenues could still be opened to humanity despite the restrictions imposedc by several forces in the digital community.

Meanwhile, financial, socio-cultural constraints, content and interface limitations could also prove detrimental to the growth of the internet.

For developing countries, especially in Asia, the high cost of ICTs constitutes the major problem. The building of infrastructure, hardware and facilities for ICTs prove to be a burden to developing and underdeveloped countries.

UNESCO studies show that developing countries need at least 200 billion dollars in the next five years in order to build 300 million main lines and upgrade current telephone facilities.

Funding for ICT trainings and acquisition of software as well is another crucial concern among developing countries. Their governments’ financial constraints and lack of sources gravely affect their capability building in relation to ICTs.

Internet connection and accessibility is indeed a widespread problem outside the highly industrialized countries like USA, United Kingdom and other parts of Europe. The developing countries in Asia and Africa are too way behind in the development of internet, as well as other areas of ICT.

The problem on the finances is even made worse by these countries’ unstable economy, inefficient bureaucratic policies and practices, and huge deficits.

For example, UNESCO sites that an estimated $US28 billion will be required to achieve the goal of installing a telephone line for every 100 people in sub-Saharan Africa.

Tariffs for telecommunications prove to be another problem in some countries. “Tariffs for telecommunications services needed for electronic mail, leased lines and TV program exchange are often high in developing countries,” UNESCO said.

Also, the cost of producing and marketing applications is another problem among poorer countries. Today, United States, Japan, Germany, Britain and France dominate the software market. The only developing country to beat other software producers is India. But again, India is only an executor selling its services (UNESCO).

With the advent of strict competition in the world wide web, UNESVO also fears that high commercialization in the digital community can pose additional problems to the less privileged.

“The inability to pay for information and services, even if one has connection to the web, becomes an additional barrier to access. Howver, the overall tendency seems to be that the web will keep expanding in terms of information freely available to the international community as organizations and individuals find in it new possibilities to share information and to promote cultural expression, as well as to develop professional and commercial services.” (UNESCO)

            New criticisms about the world wide web, particularly in the content of the materials posted seem, to be growing. This also poses threat to the potentials of the internet. More and more concerned groups air their piece on the “cyber-junk” found in the web.

            Voluminous materials are posted in the web daily and the powerful search engines are given the challenge to decipher which of these are useful to the worldwide users.

            If the present estimates are correct (UNESCO), there are some 150 million pages on the web containing 50 to 60 billion words. The challenge to locate and retrieve the content of these materials is a big challenge to the search engines to ensure accessibility to users. The more relevant the information is the better for the international public.

However, failure of the search engines to provide relevant materials would mean lesser user due to the inclusion of cyber-junks that are considered unimportant to the users.

            The use of internet is also habitual. Many students, academics and researchers browse the web and use the internet for their academic needs. But with the eventual collapse of relevant and guaranteed information, internet users may decrease every year.

            Another problem in the modern era that could limit the potentials of the net is illiteracy. Aside from the digital divide, financial, legal, ethical, and institutional constraints, the international community is also faced by the problem on illiteracy.

            Developing countries and underdeveloped countries have low literacy rates in general which is also a by-product of their staggering economy. The poorer the country is, the lesser the chances that its people are generally literate.

            Aside from the socio-economic problems like poor education, the language barrier is also a threat. Consider this, not all African and Asian countries could speak English fluently, the universal language.

            Most software and internet systems are written, designed and executed in English except for those manufactured and produced in China or India. To date, the worldwide web is still using English as its main language of execution.

            It would be far from what the internet fathers achieved – the realization of the production of multi-lingual software and systems.

            If the problem on literacy is by no way easy to solve, then the problem on the limited language use in the internet is more problematic.

            As Richard Berger (2000) believes, next generation would bring bigger ideas. The future is still ahead of us and no one could be surer what will be invented next or what will happen next. The only thing that would matter most is how we would use human intelligence in further advancing and developing the internet. “It’s up to you to move things forward and so get involved: we are the new community who can make things better,” Berger said.

And as Curran and Seaton (2003, 241) pointed out, “the internet was the product not only of human ingenuity and state of patronage, but also of the values of the people who first developed it.”

            Even Berners-Lee hoped that internet could be used to help advance human knowledge.

“I hope educators will pool their resources and create a huge supply of online materials. I hope much of this will be available freely to those especially in developing countries who may not have access to it any other way. Then I think we will see two things. One will be that keeping that web of material up to date will take a lot of time and effort – it will seem like more effort than creating it in the first place. The other is that we will see how essential people, and their wisdom, and their personal interactions are to the educational process. A university is a lot more than its library. (Berner-Lee).

            The internet’s emancipatory powers could be numerous and unquantifiable. It could reach greater heights in the future, but whether it is for the betterment of mankind, we do not know.

             What we know for now is that despite its unending potentials, despite its fast evolution, still it has its own limitations. Limitations that are dictated by the offline environment itself. Limitations that are within the parameters of the human imperfection. It could be assumed then that whatever mankind invents and achieve, still there are things that are left unfathomable and unexplainable until the time comes. (end)





Works Cited:

Curran, J., & Gurevich, M. (2005). Mass Media and Society (4th edition,Arnold ed.): RoutledgeCurzon, Taylor and Francis Group, London and New York.

Curran, J., & Seaton, J. (2003). Power Without Resposibility (6th edition ed.): Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, London and New York.

Hughes, C., & Wacker, G. (2003). China and the Internet: Politics of the digital leap forward: RoutledgeCurzon, Taylor and Francis Group, London and New York.

Livingstone, S. (2005). Critical Debates in Internet Studies: Reflections on an Emerging Field (4th edition, Arnold, ed.): MASS MEDIA AND SOCIETY.

Loader, B. D. (1997). The Governance of Cyberspace: Politics, technology and global restructuring: RoutledgeCurzon, Taylor and Francis Group, London and New York.

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