Less and Less a Wild West?

A couple of stories this morning in the Globe and Mail illustrate the changing nature of the internet. One is the report that the blogger “outed” by Google plans to sue Google for breaching its fiduciary duty to protect her privacy (ignoring, apparently, that Google revealed her name in response to a court order). The other is that Wikipedia intends to add a layer of editorial review to its content. Both indicate that in some ways, attempts to regulate the internet are occurring, for good or ill, as needed.
There’s no question that anonymity on the internet is crucial in some contexts, such as when it or social media tools are used to challenge dictatorships. But when anonymity permits bullying or defamation or other harm to individuals, it seems less desirable. Not that it is always easy to decide when anonymity is appropriate in the given case; for example, when it is used to post hate comments in response to what is viewed as the authoritarian government of the United States, is this the kind of political speech that should be protected through allowing anonymity? Regardless, there may be a chilling effect on the idea that one cannot say whatever one wants with impunity, regardless of truth and impact on others, just because it is on the internet.

The second story makes a slightly different point, but it is similar in that it recognizes that the internet isn’t necessarily a wholly different terrain from comparable other media contexts. The great experiment of Wikipedia, whereby everyone is treated as equally authoritative, is being somewhat tempered by recognizing that some people actually do know more than others about particular subjects. In some ways, Wikipedia is a victim of its own success. It is widely used as an authoritative source, yet there has been little check on its content (although various editorial comments have indicated where more evidence is needed for a particular point). The site is inserting a new level of editorial checking on posts. Does this mean that Wikipedia will soon become likely stodgy old Encyclopedia Britannica, with only certain people providing information; will it become static rather than dynamic? Will it identify only some knowledge as acceptable or legitimate? Unlikely: the form can only benefit from a bit more attention to substance and the form was a “new” creation that could not have existed before the internet, one that authoritative substance need not only not endanger, but can enhance.

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