[AfrICANN-discuss] Web freedom faces greatest threat ever, warns Google's Sergey Brin

Anne-Rachel Inné annerachel at gmail.com
Sun Apr 15 20:43:57 SAST 2012


Battle for the internet
Web freedom faces greatest threat ever, warns Google's Sergey Brin

Exclusive: Threats range from governments trying to control citizens
to the rise of Facebook and Apple-style 'walled gardens'

Sergey Brin says he and Google co-founder Larry Page would not have
been able to create their search giant if the internet was dominated
by Facebook. Photograph: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The principles of openness and universal access that underpinned the
creation of the internet three decades ago are under greater threat
than ever, according to Google co-founder Sergey Brin.

In an interview with the Guardian, Brin warned there were "very
powerful forces that have lined up against the open internet on all
sides and around the world". "I am more worried than I have been in
the past," he said. "It's scary."

The threat to the freedom of the internet comes, he claims, from a
combination of governments increasingly trying to control access and
communication by their citizens, the entertainment industry's attempts
to crack down on piracy, and the rise of "restrictive" walled gardens
such as Facebook and Apple, which tightly control what software can be
released on their platforms.

The 38-year-old billionaire, whose family fled antisemitism in the
Soviet Union, was widely regarded as having been the driving force
behind Google's partial pullout from China in 2010 over concerns about
censorship and cyber-attacks. He said five years ago he did not
believe China or any country could effectively restrict the internet
for long, but now says he has been proven wrong. "I thought there was
no way to put the genie back in the bottle, but now it seems in
certain areas the genie has been put back in the bottle," he said.

He said he was most concerned by the efforts of countries such as
China, Saudi Arabia and Iran to censor and restrict use of the
internet, but warned that the rise of Facebook and Apple, which have
their own proprietary platforms and control access to their users,
risked stifling innovation and balkanising the web.

"There's a lot to be lost," he said. "For example, all the information
in apps – that data is not crawlable by web crawlers. You can't search

Brin's criticism of Facebook is likely to be controversial, with the
social network approaching an estimated $100bn (£64bn) flotation.
Google's upstart rival has seen explosive growth: it has signed up
half of Americans with computer access and more than 800 million
members worldwide.

Brin said he and co-founder Larry Page would not have been able to
create Google if the internet was dominated by Facebook. "You have to
play by their rules, which are really restrictive," he said. "The kind
of environment that we developed Google in, the reason that we were
able to develop a search engine, is the web was so open. Once you get
too many rules, that will stifle innovation."

He criticised Facebook for not making it easy for users to switch
their data to other services. "Facebook has been sucking down Gmail
contacts for many years," he said.

Brin's comments come on the first day of a week-long Guardian
investigation of the intensifying battle for control of the internet
being fought across the globe between governments, companies, military
strategists, activists and hackers.

>From the attempts made by Hollywood to push through legislation
allowing pirate websites to be shut down, to the British government's
plans to monitor social media and web use, the ethos of openness
championed by the pioneers of the internet and worldwide web is being
challenged on a number of fronts.

In China, which now has more internet users than any other country,
the government recently introduced new "real identity" rules in a bid
to tame the boisterous microblogging scene. In Russia, there are
powerful calls to rein in a blogosphere blamed for fomenting a wave of
anti-Vladimir Putin protests. It has been reported that Iran is
planning to introduce a sealed "national internet" from this summer.

Ricken Patel, co-founder of Avaaz, the 14 million-strong online
activist network which has been providing communication equipment and
training to Syrian activists, echoed Brin's warning: "We've seen a
massive attack on the freedom of the web. Governments are realising
the power of this medium to organise people and they are trying to
clamp down across the world, not just in places like China and North
Korea; we're seeing bills in the United States, in Italy, all across
the world."

Writing in the Guardian on Monday, outspoken Chinese artist and
activist Ai Weiwei says the Chinese government's attempts to control
the internet will ultimately be doomed to failure. "In the long run,"
he says, "they must understand it's not possible for them to control
the internet unless they shut it off – and they can't live with the
consequences of that."

Amid mounting concern over the militarisation of the internet and
claims – denied by Beijing – that China has mounted numerous
cyber-attacks on US military and corporate targets, he said it would
be hugely difficult for any government to defend its online

"If you compare the internet to the physical world, there really
aren't any walls between countries," he said. "If Canada wanted to
send tanks into the US there is nothing stopping them and it's the
same on the internet. It's hopeless to try to control the internet."

He reserved his harshest words for the entertainment industry, which
he said was "shooting itself in the foot, or maybe worse than in the
foot" by lobbying for legislation to block sites offering pirate

He said the Sopa and Pipa bills championed by the film and music
industries would have led to the US using the same technology and
approach it criticised China and Iran for using. The entertainment
industry failed to appreciate people would continue to download
pirated content as long as it was easier to acquire and use than
legitimately obtained material, he said.

"I haven't tried it for many years but when you go on a pirate
website, you choose what you like; it downloads to the device of your
choice and it will just work – and then when you have to jump through
all these hoops [to buy legitimate content], the walls created are
disincentives for people to buy," he said.

Brin acknowledged that some people were anxious about the amount of
their data that was now in the reach of US authorities because it sits
on Google's servers. He said the company was periodically forced to
hand over data and sometimes prevented by legal restrictions from even
notifying users that it had done so.

He said: "We push back a lot; we are able to turn down a lot of these
requests. We do everything possible to protect the data. If we could
wave a magic wand and not be subject to US law, that would be great.
If we could be in some magical jurisdiction that everyone in the world
trusted, that would be great … We're doing it as well as can be done."

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companies. All rights reserved.

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