7.3 Curbing the Web

The World Wide Web is a disruptive technology. It enabled a phenomenal proliferation of publications on a global basis, vastly increasing the ‘information space’ in which we live. Nobody knows how big the Web is, but at the time of writing (Autumn 2004), the most popular search engine (Google) is claiming to index over four billion pages. More importantly, this explosion in the volume of publication has bypassed, and in many cases undermined, the traditional methods by which access to publication was controlled. In fact the only historical parallels to Web publishing were pamphlets, samizdat (government-banned literature in the Soviet Union) and other ‘unofficial’ methods of circulating information via paper in the past. But these older methods of ‘unofficial’ publication were intrinsically vulnerable to censorship and limited to small circulations and specific geographical locations.

All of this changed with the Web. Suddenly, anyone who was capable of writing a Web page could, in principle at least, become a global publisher. Similarly for any institution that wanted to make information available to the public. The editorial, publishing and official ‘gatekeepers’ who hitherto had controlled access to publication media could be bypassed. The result was an explosive growth in online publication across a very wide spectrum ranging from innocuous public information and news through commercial, industrial, governmental and civil society publications to pornographic and criminal publications of various kinds. The British Sunday newspaper the News of the World used to boast that ‘all human life is here’. But only the Web can truly make that claim.

Depending on one's point of view, the astonishing volume and diversity of the Web could be a matter for celebration or a cause for concern. Either way, it represented a sea-change in society's communications environment. And it posed a threat to the established order. Societies that had been accustomed to controlling certain kinds of publications found that the prohibited or undesirable material could suddenly be accessed on the Web by their citizens. News organisations that had hitherto catered only for local or national audiences found themselves competing with foreign and international providers that had previously been unavailable to their audiences. Companies that engaged in polluting activities in one part of the world found that their environmental transgressions were now being revealed to consumers in their ‘home’ markets. US automobile dealerships that had been accustomed to charging what the local market would bear found themselves confronted by customers who were aware of the prices being charged by dealers in other regions. Parents discovered that if their children typed some innocent word into a search engine the results might include some nasty pornographic websites. And so it went on: everywhere one looked, the Web appeared to be undermining older certainties, assumptions and ways of doing things.

For a brief period (1994 to 1996) the established order appeared to falter, unsure about how to tackle this new threat. There were some voices at the time arguing that the Web was uncontrollable, echoing the internet pioneer John Gilmore's famous dictum that ‘the Net sees censorship as damage and routes around it.’ But this turned out to be a naive view. The Web is indeed an unruly and vigorous medium, but it is not entirely uncontrollable. The next subsection is about some of the ways in which it has been – or might be – controlled.

7.2 Law and the interactions of the regulators of behaviour

7.4 Curbing the Web: control