SXSW panelists: Public awareness, action can help protect the best of the Internet

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Photo credit: Michael D. Bolden

There is still hope for an Internet that preserves free expression and lets innovation thrive. That was the big takeaway from Saturday’s SXSW session “Remember When the Internet Was Free?

Michael Maness, Knight Foundation vice president of journalism and media innovation, moderated the panel, which included Sue Gardner, executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation; Paul Steiger, founding editor-in-chief of ProPublica and a Knight Foundation trustee; and Tim Wu, a writer and professor at Columbia Law School, who popularized the concept of “net neutrality.”

The panelists discussed the vision of the Internet in its early days describing an open, accessible forum for shared ideas, learning and information. Gardner, in particular, provided a nostalgic account of the emerging Internet, free from government incursion, censorship and discrimination by Internet service providers. 

“It would be free; it would be cheap; it would be easy; it would importantly, I think, be always on,” she said. “We figured it would be full of interesting useful sites, importantly many of them made by amateurs or individual subject matter experts competing on a level playing field.”

The experts discussed the intense challenges facing today’s Internet in relation to this ideal. All agreed that systemic barriers to access and big business monopolies were stifling innovation and placing the power of the Internet in the hands of a select few.

“On one end you have giant companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter, and so on, which are selling information about you and me,” said Steiger. “And then you have companies at the other end, like Comcast and Verizon– enormous companies that are seeking to increasingly build local monopolies so that they can progressively raise prices and charge you for access.”

Raising awareness and speaking up, the panelists agreed, are the only ways to preserve the essential open nature of the Internet.

“We now know online censorship is on the rise. When we get revelations like the NSA revelations, I think the worst way to respond is to shrug and say, ‘Of course,’” said Gardner. “People need to make some noise when stuff is happening that they don’t like.”

The conversation concluded on an optimistic note. Panelists highlighted the rise of watchdog organizations and others such as, the Freedom of the Press Foundation and the Electronic Frontier Foundation that are defending digital freedom.

“It is still true that nobody owns the whole Internet and everybody can join it and do amazing things on it,” said Wu. “It’s very important that we set out the norms of what’s wrong and what’s right and that there should be a backlash. I think the most important idea is that there is something special about the Internet and that we as a society are safeguarding it."

Maness closed the discussion by highlighting the Knight News Challenge, which is currently accepting applications for innovations that answer the question: How can we strengthen the Internet for free expression and innovation? The $2.75 million challenge closes March 18.

Anusha Alikhan, communications director at Knight Foundation

If you’re attending SXSW and have questions about the News Challenge, come hang out with us Monday, March 10, from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. CT at The Driskill Hotel or visit our booth, No. 235, in the exhibit hall. You can also ask more questions on Thursday, March 12, when we will host a virtual office hour at 3 p.m. ET. (To connect, go to http://www.readytalk.com or call 1-866-740-1260, with code 9082660.)  

Stay up-to-date on the latest News Challenge info by following @knightfdn and #newschallenge.

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