PC World published an article concerning the outrage expressed by Wikipedia at the passing of an Italian law that will require the site, and all other online publications, to effect all requests for corrections to its entries or risk hefty fines. Wikipedia has responded by “hiding” its Italian site.
At first glance, the outrage by Wikipedia and campaigns such as “Salviamo Wikipedia” seems justified. It would appear that freedom of expression would be curtailed if corrections are accompanied by the strong arm of the law. The revolutionary potential of the internet (advocated by figures like Clay Shirky) would now be rendered impotent by a government, the head of which in Italy makes his fortune through the control of media channels, including online ones. The balance would seem to favour players with a massive online presence, deep pockets and access to the avenues of governmental power. The dangers that this poses are real indeed.
Nevertheless, such reports should give one pause to consider a number of structural considerations that are not necessarily designed to shoot down the merits of Wikipedia’s complaint, but nonetheless qualify the extent of the damage that any pro-Wikipedia faction might insinuate will be inflicted.
First, one must consider how the structures of society, and the associated costs that accrue to remain in the real world, are slowly forcing citizens, students, activists and many others to adopt online platforms in the first place. Associated with this is the almost universal obsession towards economic efficiency within our culture that would make this shift desirable to many people. Are we, in our drive to bring more of our social structures online, not already caving into some form of economic totalitarianism?
Second, there is the associated growth in our reliance on the internet for communication on anything instead of embodied forms of communications. Are there real cultural benefits to be gained by pushing for an intensifying of non-corporeal communities (this is explored by Terry Shurkle and her book Alone Together)?
Third, there is a question as to whether the dominance of corporate interests already operating in the internet really makes the internet the proper platform for revolutionary change, and not some outlet for ravenous consumption that would make any user more prone to keeping the status quo intact? Would any push towards greater internet freedoms not actually lead to the solidification of some kind of Foucauldian surveillance society, as is already taking place with the changes in formats of some forms of social networking?
Ultimately, though there is a real risk that proliferating the kinds of laws the Italian government is passing will lead to subtle forms of oppression, one may be forgiven for asking if the trajectory of a society that favours greater liberties with the internet – a society that is becoming more and more virtual – might lead to even subtler, though no less real, forms of cultural oppression.