England has an odd tradition that startles foreigners: when you walk cross-country, much as Jane Austen and her character did, you can walk across farmers' fields. There are fences marking boundaries, and gates to open and close that keep cows and sheep in their allocated places, and stiles to climb over where gates aren't sufficient. On one such walk in Derbyshire a few years ago while visiting a friend, I developed a new appreciation for the athleticism of Elizabeth Bennet ("Elizabeth continued her walk alone, crossing field after field at a quick pace, jumping over stiles and springing over puddles...").
This right to roam is what's left of what used to be a public commons. In England, as I understand it, children were tortured for years by having to learn about the Enclosures, a series of 16th to 19th century acts that turned the public commons into a nation-sized collection of private holdings.
These days, in matters relating to the Internet the Enclosures are most often used as an analogy for copyright law: the enclosure of the cultural commons has obvious resonance with the enclosure of public land. But the Internet as a collaboratively - or even collectively - built resource, has even more resonance with surfacing trends toward greater control of the traffic that crosses it.
This week, for example, AT&T announced a sort of equivalent of 800 numbers, a sponsored data scheme. In this scenario, companies pay so that their traffic does not count against a subscriber's data cap. On the one hand, that sounds like a good deal for subscribers: free stuff! On the other hand, it sounds like a great set of incentives for further centralization, which we already have argued is the enemy. If Google, with its googolicious pockets, sponsors a fat four-lane highway to YouTube, how does a newcomer video streaming entry compete when all it can afford is the free dirt path? What if Amazon, to promote its streaming service, demands a non-compete clause in which it sponsors free data for its customers on condition that Netflix and Hulu are locked out?
This was, of course, the whole point about network neutrality, which AT&T has long hated. In this battle, the wireless networks have long had a free pass. Telecommunications rules were written to regulate incumbents; wireless, as challengers, keep being exempted from obeying the same rules. This duality is biting more and more, as mobile phones and tablets become the primary gateway to the Internet for many, even most, people.
AT&T's move is only one sign of the times,. In other news this week, Google apparently removed the "bug" that enabled a nifty-sounding bit of privacy protection, App Ops, to give direct access to hidden privacy settings, with, apparently, no likelihood of restoring it any time soon. The Electronic Frontier Foundation is appropriately dismayed. It's stuff like this that makes people stop updating and patching their software.
Earlier this week, I discovered that The New Yorker, to whose print edition I subscribe, has turned its Web archives from ordinary HTML into a ghastly Flash thing which can only be loaded by the pair of pages. On a netbook, you can't read comfortably: the whole-page version is too tiny, and zoom only gives you a paragraph at a time (with no scrolling). Given that their app has refused to download for non-US-based readers and their customer service has ignored complaints, I can only view this as yet another step toward what Pamela Samuelson calls copyright maximalistscopyright maximalism, where it is impossible to save a copy of an article to reread (if you can navigate the interface, you can print a copy, just about; picking the right pages to print is impossible on a small screen).
All these things add up to a very different Internet than the one that was opened to the public in 1994: a set of channels delivering tightly controlled "user experiences" rather than a shared commons. Even the most commercial Web site can be made to show you its source code (CTRL-U in most cases if you can't find it on your browser menu); even the most altruistically designed app can't be. Which leads me to a point I've long wanted to make. People watch kids expertly manipulate their phones and think they're "digital natives". Nonsense. The digital natives are the fogeys, old and young, with general-purpose laptops, who built the thing and know from the bottom up the plain-text pathways that make the Internet run. Those fast-typing searchers and app devotees know how to access the bits they're familiar with but their knowledge is shallow. That in turn makes it hard to explain just what is being lost in these various cases. And what's the alternative? The Pirate Bay?
Unfortunately, the Web, too, is becoming enclosed. The many people for whom Facebook or Google is their "Internet" is an obvious example. A right to roam on tiny paths across privately owned fields won't be enough in this case. We need to keep building the public commons.
Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.