Virtual Consumer May-Jun 2011

Revolution 2.0

Virtual Consumer column from Ethical Consumer magazine May-Jun 2011

Recently a small group of people gathered in Manchester and connected via Skype from various parts of the world to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Manchester Host - an early example of an on-line information and communications service designed to promote economic and social development. It predated the first World Wide Web browser, and while it had a connection to the Internet, it mainly relied on a different network called X.25.

X.25 worked on similar principles to the Internet but with one crucial difference –  you had to pay to move data across it. This had some advantages – spam for example was not a problem – but ultimately the X.25 network lost out to the Internet because it could not compete as a platform for innovation. The Internet is a ‘cloud’ – what you send in at one end comes out the other and you don’t have to worry about what happens in between – or indeed, how much you will pay. As John Naughton has argued, the people who created innovations like the World Wide Web, Skype and Facebook didn’t have to ask anyone for permission: they simply took advantage of the Internet’s cloud character to make it do something new – often unimagined by the people who created the Internet.

The Manchester Host had a sister system called GEO2. Campaigning organisations in places like South Africa used GEO2 and the X.25 network to get information out of the country without being censored – an early example of how this technology challenges repressive regimes. Because it is free, the Internet poses an even bigger challenge. On the net all websites are equally accessible, whether run by a small environmental organisation or the giant transnational it is campaigning against.

The recent events in North Africa show that as well as giving a voice to the powerless, the Internet threatens repressive regimes in other ways.

The net has globalised the experience of the people who use it. It was the gradual realisation of just how much higher living standards were in the West that fatally undermined the Soviet regime in the 1980s. In a similar way the freedom simply to exchange news and gossip on social networks like Facebook and Twitter has opened the eyes of net users in repressive regimes to what is possible when communications are free and open.

Secondly the net has made it possible for large groups to respond rapidly to events. A message to many is as easy as a message to one. Protests can be organised in hours or even minutes, and what happens in one city can spread to others before the state even understands what is happening.

China and others have managed to keep a lid on this so far – but for how long?