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New England editorial roundup

December 27, 2014

The Brattleboro (Vt.) Reformer, Dec. 25, 2014

Two decades into the Internet revolution and political leaders around the world are still trying to figure out how to control, regulate and bend it to their will.

Internet governance is at an inflection point right now and debate about the fundamental structure of the Internet is ramping up, according to an essay written by the bipartisan leaders of the House Energy & Commerce and Foreign Affairs Committees for Recode.net, a CNBC partner site.

U.S. Reps. Fred Upton, R-Mich., Henry A. Waxman, D-Calif., and Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., said this debate will affect global business models relying on networked technologies and freedom of expression and privacy. The United States’ position has been clear on this question: The multi-stakeholder system must continue.

A multi-stakeholder model of Internet governance embraces individual users, academia, technologists, civil society, commercial interests, and governments. For continued advancement of the Internet, the congressmen argue, the world must maintain multi-stakeholder governance and reject efforts by others to impose an intergovernmental entity as an international Internet regulator.

As the congressmen note, not every country shares our nation’s passion for free expression. Around the world, oppressive governments have restricted access to Facebook, Google, YouTube, as well as other sites, in an effort to control the free flow of opinions and information. Vladimir Putin made headlines recently when he blocked a Facebook page promoting a Russian opposition rally, but this type of thing happens all the time with oppressive governments.

China is blocking websites and filtering its citizen’s searches, Cuba only allows pro-government users to upload content, Saudi Arabia has blocked more than 40,000 sites that it deems unacceptable with the government, and Turkey is taking steps to make it easier to block sites without a court order.

We’re lucky here in the United States because as much as we like to grumble about our government, the fact is we are allowed to grumble about our government by any peaceful means we choose, including the Internet. Cyberspace in the U.S. is awash with political discourse and free-flowing exchange of ideas. But just because our government doesn’t control the Internet doesn’t mean it isn’t being controlled.

Because of the way the Internet works, companies that operate social media platforms get to subtly influence what we encounter online: what we find, who we meet, and what we buy, according to a recent article in The Telegraph. Thanks to market forces and expediency the result is a public space that isn’t really controlled by the citizens. It’s curated, controlled, monetized, and censored, often from behind closed doors, the newspaper reports.

Some governments are discussing regulatory steps against the Internet giants to stem this monopoly of influence over cyberspace, but market forces are going in a different direction. According to the Telegraph, “an alternative way of running the Internet is being built already: an Internet where no one is in control, where no one can shut you down, where no one can manipulate your content. A decentralised Internet.”

This “Ethereum” system will allow us to do everything online directly with each other, not through the big companies that currently mediate our online interaction and whom we have little choice but to trust with our data.

The Telegraph believes this transformation with the Internet will be gradual but significant: “Chipping away at the dominance of the big companies that currently rule the roost, and making it far harder, if not impossible, to censor and control what’s online. Doubtless ISIL propagandists will be rubbing their hands with this, but so will democratic revolutionaries in Russia. And for the rest of us, it will mean more control over our own data and digital footprints, a peer-to-peer network where no one is in charge — because everyone is.”

The Record Journal of Meriden (Conn.), Dec. 26, 2014

Children today never seem far removed from computer screens or digital content. Out in public, on buses or trains, they watch programming or play video games on smartphones and hand-held consoles. Walk through the Wallingford Public Library computer section on any given day, and you will see a number of kids controlling characters in virtual worlds. This may hone certain technical skills, but does anybody believe that these activities are beneficial for youths’ attention spans or mental development?

Parents in holiday season 2014 — and perhaps beyond — would seem to think not. What’s hot this winter are “unplugged” toys, according to a New York Times article. Popular non-electronic items include arts and crafts, outdoor toys, kinetic sand (similar to Play-Doh), Legos (orders have spiked 188 percent), American Dolls (eBay listings are up 189 percent) and the 1990s throwback Puppy Surprise, a stuffed dog that births a litter of stuffed puppies. Manufacturers could not deliver that particular plaything fast enough before retailers again sold out.

What gives? Marketing executives believe parents are pushing back against screens. And who can blame them? Perhaps kids can make much better use of their time with non-electronic toys.

This helps explain the rising appeal of arts and crafts this holiday season. Certain items, like jewelry-making toys, have even begun incorporating business aspects. The idea is that users will sell some of what they make, so that youths can learn the basics of managing production and commerce. Even if economics are not involved, toys that foster creativity and personalization, like Legos, can stretch a recipient’s imagination.

The same cannot be so easily said for the umpteenth iteration of a kart-racing video game, or the DVD boxed set of a favorite cartoon show. The trends this shopping season suggest that adults have been keeping this in mind when shopping for children. Although movies, TV shows and video games are high on universal appeal, they are low on the self-improvement factor. It strikes us as a good sign that adults are considering toys that will challenge children intellectually, and allow them to utilize creativity and imagination that might not be engaged by other gifts.

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