The Reading Room

Digital apartheid

All over the world a brand new divide is being created. Those who have access to the free flowing information of the World Wide Web and those who don’t. This is not what British Computer Scientist Tim Berners Lee had in mind when he gave the biggest money maker of all time away for free.

And it’s not just down to how poor you’re or even how good your local infrastructure is. There is now “The great firewall of China” stopping certain parts of Google’s service (now transmitting from Hong King) reaching the mainland. Chinese citizens don’t have a clue what You Tube is or know a thing about blogging. Never mind finding the wiki entry for Tiananmen Square.

Coming soon to a service provider near you is also Rupert Murdoch’s brand new paywall for all his online media content. This summer our democratic western world will be hit by a new digital apartheid as some people will not be able to afford to read the Times or the Wall St Journal online.

The Guardian Media Group (as long as Alan Rushbridger is there) is keeping its online content free including its first class podcasts. La Figaro has also recently announced that its online service will be free forever. Big questions still remain about the BBC but I strongly believe that it should always be the last bastion of good quality free news.

It seems that little pockets of digital warfare are taking place across the globe. Some media outlets are fighting each other and some are fighting Governments. Some are fighting for their profit margins and some are fighting for freedom. But we’re losing out in the mean time and the margins of our loss become bigger as the online world becomes more useful. Maybe it’s time the public got involved in this fight.

As flowers are laid at Google’s ex Chinese HQ in Beijing the question has to be asked if these media giants are becoming the new Gods; capable of bringing sweeping change in our lives with the kind of power that Presidents and Dictators can only dream of. Hillary Clinton immediately backed Google’s recent stand in China but Google’s action itself somehow seemed more important.

What if Marc Zuckerberg freezed all facebook accounts in Israel until no new settlements were built in Palestine? What if YouTube shut down in Iran until there was democracy? What if Twitter switched off in the US until it signed up to a new Copenhagen environment agreement? Their people would sit up and notice. These actions may not be as powerful as sanctions but it’s amazing how addicted people have become to their new found online pleasures. It’s worth thinking about.

Next time you push a button to switch on your facebook account just remember that these new media Gods are just as capable of pushing your buttons. PS

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