"The Internet Has Been a Force for Good"
No. In the days when the Internet was young, our hopes were high. As with any budding love affair, we wanted to believe our newfound object of fascination could change the world. The Internet was lauded as the ultimate tool to foster tolerance, destroy nationalism, and transform the planet into one great wired global village. Writing in 1994, a group of digital aficionados led by Esther Dyson and Alvin Toffler published a manifesto modestly subtitled "A Magna Carta for the Knowledge Age" that promised the rise of "'electronic neighborhoods' bound together not by geography but by shared interests." Nicholas Negroponte, then the famed head of the MIT MediaLab, dramatically predicted in 1997 that the Internet would shatter borders between nations and usher in a new era of world peace.
Well, the Internet as we know it has now been around for two decades, and it has certainly been transformative. The amount of goods and services available online is staggering. Communicating across borders is simpler than ever: Hefty international phone bills have been replaced by inexpensive subscriptions to Skype, while Google Translate helps readers navigate Web pages in Spanish, Mandarin, Maltese, and more than 40 other languages. But just as earlier generations were disappointed to see that neither the telegraph nor the radio delivered on the world-changing promises made by their most ardent cheerleaders, we haven't seen an Internet-powered rise in global peace, love, and liberty.
And we're not likely to. Many of the transnational networks fostered by the Internet arguably worsen -- rather than improve -- the world as we know it. At a recent gathering devoted to stamping out the illicit trade in endangered animals, for instance, the Internet was singled out as the main driver behind the increased global commerce in protected species. Today's Internet is a world where homophobic activists in Serbia are turning to Facebook to organize against gay rights, and where social conservatives in Saudi Arabia are setting up online equivalents of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. So much for the "freedom to connect" lauded by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in her much-ballyhooed speech on the Internet and human rights.
Sadly enough, a networked world is not inherently a more just world.