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New Zealand's longest-running online daily news and commentary publication, now in its 24th year. The opinion pieces presented here are not purported to be fact but reasonable effort is made to ensure accuracy.

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Does anyone remember the internet?

29 March 2018

I remember, way back in the 1990s, marveling at the wonders of the internet.

Of course way back then the Net was much smaller, far more primitive and virtually empty of content.

We're talking pre-Google when search "directories" were as popular and effective as search engines. This was an era when many of the tools used to access the Net were command-line based and spam was so rare that it was a novelty.

Forget streaming video, or even streaming video... with dial-up modems stick at 9600 or (at best) 14.4K, things happened more slowly than they do today -- albeit not that much more slowly.

However, the best thing about the Net was the freedom.

Some refer to those early days as "the wild west days" of the internet and I can see why.

Imagine that you've just discovered a whole new continent. You can stand in the middle of wide, open plains and shout whatever you want at the top of your voice. You can fire your gun and even take off all your clothes and run around naked.

Nobody will care... because there's virtually nobody else there.

And this is how it was back in the early days. There was no censorship, there was no surveillance, there was virtually nothing (other than the restrictions imposed by the technologies of the day) to stop you doing anything you wanted to do.

This was both good and bad.

On the good side it meant that even the most eccentric or nonconformist individuals and groups had a platform for their voice and opinions.

On the bad side, there were actually usenet newsgroups which had all sorts of unsavoury (and illegal) content in them. Bestiality, paedophilia, sadism... it was all there for those who wanted to go looking.

Why was so much freedom permitted? Why didn't the authorities crack down on those extreme pornography feeds and other illegal stuff?

Well mainly because "the powers that be" didn't think the Net was important. As far as politicians and bureaucrats were concerned, the Net was just an curiosity used by students and geeks -- and even then, only by those of them who had access to computers.

In short... they didn't understand it and figured it would never amount to much.

Roll forward 25 years or so however, and the Net is a much different place.

It is now the backbone of modern society, commerce and communications.

Those wide open plains of the "wild west days" have gone, replaced by bustling streets filled with people, soaring high-rise buildings and a real buzz of activity.

Fire your gun, shout obscenities or run around naked now and you'll be in a heap of trouble.

Okay, nothing unexpected there... but things are now getting ludicrously extreme.

YouTube is cracking down on the types of content it deems to be unacceptable... now forbidding videos that in any way promote the sales of guns for example. No, it's not that guns are illegal (at least in the USA), it's simply that Google has decided to inflict its own censorship on one of the largest online communities in the world.

Now Microsoft has decided that if you use its services and dare to swear or store nude images then you risk being banned. And to be totally clear... we're not talking about publishing nude images for the world to see or using offensive language in webcasts open to the public... we're talking about simply storing stuff (unshared) on their cloud (OneDrive), via email, while using Office or Bing when or using Skype, even during private calls.

If you're using their XBox network then a ban may also include loss of menbership and forfeiture of any account balance. WTF? Isn't that theft? Seriously?

We've gone from a lawless frontier to an environment that even the staunchest prude might find restrictive... in less than three decades.

Let's also not forget that every keystroke we make while on the Net is almost certainly being scrutinised by one or more "security agencies" -- just to make sure we're not plotting some hideous conspiracy that would challenge the governments that run them.

How tragic.

Now I have to admit that I was kind of shocked when I first discovered how lawless the original internet was but by the same token, I am deeply disturbed that we have effectively lost the freedoms that made the Net great. Now, even our most private data is increasingly being covertly scrutinised for things that someone else might think is offensive.

According to some reports, Microsoft's new policy has probably been implemented due to the effect of new legislation in the USA in the form of FOSTA (Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act) and SESTA (Stop Enabling Sex-Trafficking Act). Under these acts, an online platform can be held responsible for a user's statements or any content which might even remotely be considered "trafficking".

Perhaps Microsoft's perspective in respect to complying with these acts has become "better safe than sorry".

Isn't it funny how, from a politician's and bureaucrat's perspective, the Net has swung from "bah, it's nothing" to "we must control it" in such a short space of time.

How much further can this pendulum swing?

I'd like to know what readers think. Have we gone too far?

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