Did you know the World Wide Web is now 18 years old? And like many a recalcitrant teen, it is starting to mature at a quicker rate — giving up wild abandon for a more structured way of being. Call it a teenage existential crisis if you like. Or maybe it’s just that we the users of the vast technological resources now available to us have matured.
Whatever it is, enter “the Internet.” Yes, there is a distinction, and no, I’m not going to give you what would amount to a clumsy explanation at best, of that distinction. Instead, I’ll simply say that basically the web is a means to access information over the Internet: the Internet being the network over which our computers communicate. These days, it’s all about the applications: Facebook, Twitter, e-mail, company VPNs (virtual private networks), Craigslist, Zoosk, voice-over-IP phones, and online gaming. In all, over 200,000 applications now exist.
Each of the applications cited above creates a unique means to communicate: whether through a multi-player video game, dating sites, or Facebook, we are still communicating, but in vastly different ways now. In fact, I can’t even remember the last time I got a handwritten letter in the mail.
On the other hand, the other week I came across a string of updates on Facebook from a friend who now lives in Quito, Ecuador. Not only was I horrified by the prospect that his city was under siege because of an apparent coup attempt, I was in equal measure awed by the fact that he could communicate what he was witnessing in real time, via a social media site.
Think about it: wherever access to the Internet is possible — now possible on mobile devices small enough to fit in your pocket — communication with others is possible. Television, even radio feeds, can be cut, but one guy trying to ready his office for the worst can disseminate information about what’s going on right in front of him by way of mobile device and an application to all of his Facebook friends, who pass it on to their friends. And so it goes.
While having the freedom to exercise our democratic right to speak seems obvious here at home, the dangers associated with that sort of discourse from within a country in which such rights are, at best, controlled, and very real. Incredibly however, the risks do not appear to be sufficient to discourage those who would speak out and be heard.
I am fascinated by the discourse that is taking place online these days, not the least of which is because I myself communicate electronically using so many different applications in any given day. It’s a little surreal to be honest. Where the Internet and electronic communication has become tricky for those of us in the legal profession who are focused on technology, is in addressing the panoply of laws that interact with it, including defamation, intellectual property, and privacy.
If the stories are in any way true, before Mark Zuckerberg co-created Facebook, he used the Internet as a public forum for blogging his opinions — not all of them popular — and apparently found himself in hot water. Facebook itself isn’t all that different really, it’s just that more than 500,000 million of us are now blogging that way, using just one application.
What’s dangerous about whipping off a quick Facebook update about the colleague you say the president of your company is now sleeping with post-holiday staff party? At best, it provokes 28 “likes” and a bunch of comments from friends. At worst, it could get you fired and possibly sued for libel. Information travels quickly these days. If you aren’t sure about how quickly, think about the fact that Facebook went live in 2004 and within six-odd years it has a user population larger than the number of people in Canada and the United States combined.
Intellectual property is another tricky area. I used to joke with my clients that once they got sued, they had hit the big time. The rationale being that someone thought they were sufficiently successful and full of cash that it would be worth suing them. The truth is I have a full-on love-hate relationship with intellectual property. It is a business tool, but who in the end are its true beneficiaries?
“Face book” as I understand it, was a term coined by American universities that used it to identify reference libraries of college student photos. Facebook as we know it is probably (conservatively) a billion-dollar brand today. I get the value of intellectual property — hell, I sell the value of intellectual property — but I do at times wonder if it isn’t a little like the lottery. If you don’t play, you’ll never win. If you play and win, the payoff can be exponentially bigger than the investment. So you might as well play, right?
Lastly, what about privacy? Privacy laws are being studied now more than ever because of issues such as personal information and the transmission of the same, voluntarily or otherwise, into different jurisdictions. Social media sites are interesting because we voluntarily post all kinds of personal information about ourselves, our friends, and loved ones. If we don’t make an effort to use the privacy settings (such as they are) available to us, we don’t have any reasonable expectation of privacy.
And yet, even if our privacy settings are on, but our information is available to our friends, what happens if a friend posts a compromising video of you that your collective friends can see? You might have managed to spot the video and un-tag yourself within hours, but it is still on the posting party’s page (until you demand it be removed). And what if a friend of a friend who saw it has saved the video and uploaded it to YouTube?
Practically speaking, you may have managed to get the video pulled from YouTube (by way of injunction or, more cheaply and efficiently, by sending a notice to YouTube) and successfully sued the offending party (for any number of things from libel to breach of privacy) and even been awarded damages. But at the end of the day, whether it is written words, images, audio or video, the Internet is kind of like a tattoo, you might be able to hide it, but it never really goes away.
Sarah Dale-Harris is corporate counsel at Accenture Inc. and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 416-641-3151. If you are interested in “what happened” to the web and “why” it was eclipsed by the Internet, read Wired’s “The Web is Dead. Long Live the Internet.” The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone.