4. Who controls the internet?

The open web

The fundamental principle of the internet has traditionally favoured openness and freedom. This understanding has influenced not only the infrastructure of the Internet, which is designed to be decentralised in structure and control, but also many of the key technologies that enable the Internet, which are free. The tension between openness/freedom and control can be seen in the debate about net neutrality.

Net neutrality

Net neutrality has emerged as an important topic of debate for countries, Internet Service Providers (ISP), the wider technology sector, and internet users. Net neutrality maintains that ISPs “do not censor or otherwise manage content which individual users are attempting to access” (Marsden, 2017). Advocates argue that suppressing net neutrality stifles innovations, infringes on the principle of freedom of speech, and is anti-competitive. While Australians do not have an explicit right to net neutrality, we remain protected from most forms of net discrimination by our consumer laws and strong competition between ISPs. Visit What is net neutrality? by Los Angeles Times.

Anything goes

Early web activists understood the open web as one that was free of government regulation and oversight. Barlow, in his famous Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, envisaged a space open to anyone with none of the familiar restrictions or rules of everyday life, and free from government interference.

Read Read Barlow’s a Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.

What role do you think the government should play in regulating the internet?

Growing government regulation

Despite the fact that the internet can feel like the wild west, we now know that Barlow’s vision of “cyberspace” never eventuated. For instance, Australia’s criminal laws prohibit a person from:

  • sharing child exploitation material
  • threatening or harassing others online
  • stealing another’s identity.

A raft of civil laws, including intellectual property laws, defamation laws, and anti-discrimination laws, regulate how individuals interact with each other online. As more goods and services are sold on the internet, users need to be aware of their rights and obligations as consumers. It is important to note that for Australian online sellers, the Australian Consumer Law still applies, and consumers are entitled to certain consumer rights and guarantees.

Read Read Shopping online by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.

Did you know that it may be more difficult to repair, replace or refund your purchase if it is from an overseas online business?

There are some forms of behaviour which have no analogous version in the physical world (for instance, revenge porn). Government, legislatures, and society in general, will continue to grapple about how to regulate online life.

Some countries have a highly regulated internet. Read The internet, but not as we know it: Life online in China, Cuba, India and Russia.

Commercial players

With the emergence of big online services including Facebook, Google, Apple, and Amazon, online behaviour is increasingly regulated by tech companies.

Terms and conditions

One common example of this type of regulation is the terms of service document which users are often asked to agree to. These documents are sometimes called the terms and conditions or terms of use. These are often considered to be click-wrap contracts as the user must accept the terms and conditions before they can proceed with the service or transaction. These documents are typically very long and written in technical, jargon-filled language, which is difficult for the average person to understand.

Video Terms and conditions social experiment (YouTube, 2m37s)

Despite the fact that these documents are often not read by consumers, the terms and conditions are very important.

Read The article, Click to agree with what? No one reads terms of service, reports that most of us are unlikely to read online contracts, terms of service or privacy policies when signing up for new apps or platforms.

In one study, students agreed to join a fake social network, NameDrop, without reading the terms of service. But in the terms of service, they’d agreed to give NameDrop their future first-born children.

What is covered in the terms and conditions?

While the contents of each agreement depend on the product or service offered, many services outline the:

  • use of service — what uses are allowed
  • privacy policy
  • data policy
  • copyright of your content — who owns content posted on the platform
  • suspension or termination of service — when and under what conditions can the company suspend your service.

Go to Terms of Service; Didn’t Read for plain English descriptions of the terms and conditions for your online service or platform.


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Digital Skills: Security and Safety Copyright © 2023 by Charles Sturt University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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