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Local values of a global net

Ramesh Srinivasan reminds us that there’s something wrong with Marshall McLuhan’s idea that technology is creating a “global village,” a phrase from McLuhan’s 1962 book The Guttenberg Galaxy. In those days, we thought broadcast media—especially television—was going to beam American values into every nook of the globe. Now we have an even more powerful global network with even greater reach, and Srinivasan is concerned about the cultural homogenization it may bring in its wake. He especially wants to wake the West up to the way it ignores the cultural aspects of the Internet’s very structure.

So forget the cat videos and the porn for now. Is the Internet by its very nature so imbued with Western values that it threatens local cultures?

Not the Net itself

On the one hand, Srinivasan says it’s not the Internet itself but the apps on it that threaten the world’s diversity of cultures. Indeed, much of his book, Whose Global Village?, is devoted to his work with small non-Western populations, using the Internet in ways that help them sustain and advance their own values, meanings and practices. For example, he developed an idea of “fluid ontologies”—classification systems that are richer, more malleable, less linear and more bottom-up than traditional Western ones—while working with Somali refugees, and applied the concept when designing a digital environment with members of 19 Native American reservations in San Diego County, CA. That digital environment strengthens the Native American culture, yet it is Internet-based. So, the problem isn’t with the Net itself.

The most obvious targets of Srinivasan’s critique are the most obvious apps on the Net: Facebook, Google, Twitter and the like. I recently attended a session at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society that made the problem crystal clear. Jonathan Zittrain, the head of the Center, interviewed Monika Bickert, Facebook’s Head of Global Policy Management, about how the site handles hate speech. What counts as hate speech obviously varies from culture to culture, as does what should be done about it. But Facebook is a global service. Its actions on hate speech can’t possibly please every country ... or any country entirely, given the internal debates within most of them.

So, Facebook has a global policy: It deletes speech that is an attack against a protected category such as gender, race or religion. To this it adds local restrictions to meet legal requirements in particular countries. For example, in Thailand Facebook blocks insults against the King, and in Germany it conforms to that country’s more restrictive laws about anti-Semitism.

On the one hand, this makes sense. It addresses the needs and laws of particular regions, even if the approach doesn’t get granular enough for smaller local variants, such as Native American tribes or, say, American Orthodox Jewish communities. But Facebook’s approach makes the issue manageable. On other hand, it raises the same question that Srinivasan’s critique raises: Is the default baseline of services provided either by Facebook or by the Internet itself a cultural homogenizer?

Baked-in values

Facebook is the easier case. Yes, Facebook imposes values on populations that use it. It has made core decisions that do not sit well within all cultures. For example, as Ellery Biddle of the Global Voices project explained to me, Facebook’s insistence that users use their real, full names means that in parts of India where women’s last names can flag that they of a low caste, using that name can evince abuse and can discourage authorities fromresponding to that abuse. That’s on top of the well-known problems using real names can cause for activists in repressive regimes.

But how about for the Internet itself? Is it a cultural homogenizer? I think the case can be made that it is. At least, you have to work hard to keep it from being one.

That’s because cultural values are baked into the protocols that define the Internet. Those protocols do not require that packets of information identify who they are coming from; the Internet has no “real name” policy. The protocols do not require the inclusion of information about what country or tribe a packet is going to or coming from. It does not require stating what application it is enabling, whether the information is private or if it is copyrighted. The Internet protocols are designed to enable a system where information flows with as few impediments as possible. It is not how, say, the Taliban would have designed the Internet. Or Walt Disney, for that matter.


But no one uses the Internet directly, of course, so the Internet’s valuing the free flow of information can be masked from the user. If all you ever saw of the Internet was a telephone application, you might never know you were using the Internet at all. If all you ever saw of the Internet was Facebook, you might not understand that the Internet itself has no Real Name policy. But even in repressive regimes that block sites and ideas, Internet apps are implicitly showing people the value of the free—or at least relatively free—flow of information.

Until relatively recently, it was widely assumed that free-flowing information can be corrosive of values and morals. The Net’s architecture is slowly leading the world to a different conclusion. At its best, this can enable local cultures to further their own values. At its worst, it will thoughtlessly erode differences that enrich the world.

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