To better protect the Democratic Internet

A while ago on Reuters and Slash dot I read that Chinese President Hu Jintao has launched a campaign to rid the country’s sprawling Internet of “unhealthy” content and make it a springboard for Communist Party doctrine.

That isn’t really anything new. The truth is, the distributed and democratic nature of the Internet has always been a threat to those who are trying to super impose conformity or a unified set of ideas over the diverse humanity. I personally think attempts to censor and lock down content would fail in the long run, yet they could do quite a bit of damage in short run.

Art Censorship
Photography by Abbey Wuthrich © All rights reserved

Many social networking and online communities such as YouTube and Flickr aren’t exempt. For example, we all know that there is an ongoing race among companies such as Google or Yahoo to grow market-share in China. They have already filtered their search engine content to comply with the censorship regulations imposed by the communist party. The same applies to YouTube and Flickr which are owned by Google and Yahoo. In general the fact that a lot of user generated images and videos are centralized in these two online communities, would leave them at the mercy of corporate greed and dictator governments.

Just recently Yahoo applied more restrictions and filters on Flickr’s user generated images, and that was done under the name of reducing pornographic content. This caused a lot of heat among the members, since many of the content of artistic nature were tagged or flagged as “offensive” or they were blocked by default.

Soon after, the words on Flickr community groups were going around that Flickr is hoping to grow market share in China. Flickr is a state of the Art Web 2.0 application with a distributed and democratic nature. This could be a threat to a pro-censorship government such as the Communist Party in China.

Try this: for every news that you see on CNN, BBC, or other major networks do a little keyword search on Flickr or YouTube. It is likely that you find real content of the same news events (or more) which are produced by independent reporters. Some of this content could have never survived the major networks’ editorial process. If you live in a country like Iran or China, a community like Flickr could be a device to bypass the government’s censorship machine. Information empowers people, many governments don’t like that!

Protecting the user generated content

Services such as Flickr, or YouTube are great and we are glad to have them today, but here is the problem: They are centralized integrated systems and always subject to manipulation and control for business and political purposes. That isn’t healthy for the democratic nature of the Internet.

If someday the government of China decides to tell Yahoo how to run their business, then what is going to happen to all the user content that do not comply with the communist party’s standards? Some of this content is valuable intellectual properties that took months or years to be groomed and grown.

Perhaps we could make changes in the way we built online communities, to better protect the flow of information from those who try to starve us from the fruit of knowledge.

First: We need more loosely coupled systems

We need to decentralize our online communities. This way they could still provide the same type of services as Flickr or YouTube do, but in a more ad-hock fashion. It doesn’t matter what technology is used for each of these frameworks as long as they can communicate and understand each other using open standard protocols.

Sort of like the Internet itself!

A network of independently connected Blogs or Media Management services hosted on independent servers is a lot more difficult to be shut down. Even if some powerful entity manages to shut down a part of the network, the remainder can still continue to operate and grow.

I think today we have enough Open Source technologies and well developed web services to make this happen, all it takes is a group of inspired volunteers. Perhaps the same type of people who made projects such as Joomla, Drupal, WordPress, Linux, or Apache happen. We could perhaps add a component to all the existing open source content management systems and create this ad-hock network of continually up and running communities.

Then: Ability to export, migrate, and import content

We need to be able to export, migrate, and import content from one online community to another using just a few clicks. Having this feature no Social Networking Website (SNW) operator could threaten to delete the content users have spent month or years to grow. This would be like a permanent housing solution for online users who are never afraid to become homeless again.

This should be doable, since most of the SNWs provide web based APIs, so all we need is to agree on some kind of Open Standard xml data format, and write applications which can suck out a user’s content from a SNW and save it on the hard disk or some kind of web based storage service.

We probably already have such a XML standard that I’m not aware of. Please enlighten me, I would like to know what you think.

[tags]democracy, cybersociology, social networking website, flickr, youtube, communist party, china, iran, censorship, distributed communities, open source, joomla, drupal, linux, apache, web based API, programmable web, decentralized online communities, rastin mehr, dictator, fruit of knowledge, web2.0, web-20, web applications, foss, freedom, wordpress, user generated content, flickr censorship [/tags]

9 thoughts on “To better protect the Democratic Internet”

  1. Great blog post! I did a similar one some weeks ago. Link. And I agree with you, it will happen! 😉 There are even some people working on a decentralized “Flickr-style” application.

  2. Absolutely right.

    As I understand the main idea of Diaspora is that they develop a kind of a lightweight “content server resp. adapter” so that each social web user would be its own content provider to different social webs such as webs based on e.g. your sophisticated Anahita system.

    So Diaspora could be a content interface/plugin to Anahita for users who wish to keep the control of their own content resp. data.

    Do I misunderstand the idea of Diaspora?

    Best regards

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