State of the Web: Will the Web wilt when it’s no longer wild?

wilting ethernet plant internet policy sopa government censorshipOn January 18, the digital world changed forever. Internet denizens pumped together like engine pistons, and a powerful new force sputtered to life. For an instant, everything went as planned: SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act, stopped in its tracks like a deer that ran the wrong way. A Mack truck of connected humanity splattered it into the ether. Thus, the new age of Internet activism and awareness began.

But such moments do not last without continuous forward motion. And that part is up to you. The challenge here is to keep the engine of change running.

We currently live in the shadow of SOPA’s defeat, an existence with both positive and negative byproducts. The trouncing of SOPA was sorely felt throughout Washington and the schools of lobbyists who circle our elected leaders. Nobody wants to “get SOPA’d” again. For politicians, that generally means crafting legislation that avoids the wrath of the online masses, or taking a stance that puts them on the Web’s list of good guys. This is democracy at its best, when those who hold the strings are too afraid to pull the wrong ones.

The upheaval of SOPA also opened the doors of awareness to many Web users. For the first time, it seems, we the people realized that this place we rely upon and enjoy could become soiled, broken, and less free. This in turn has spawned the creation of organizations like the Internet Defense League (IDL), the rising profile of advocacy groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Center for Democracy and Technology, and fledgling movements like the Declaration of Internet Freedom.

The wariness in Washington and the public’s realization that we hold actual power serve the Internet well. Unfortunately, this newfound awareness has also created a state of constant red alert; every bill or treaty or discolored government action gets painted as an emergency. Sensationalistic reporting abounds. And message boards brim with misinformation and misguided outrage – none of which serves anyone or anything well.

This feverish environment has the effect of wearing people down. Just six months after the fall of SOPA, Web users are already tired. The threats to the open Web flow endlessly from every opening. Organizations like the IDL are attempting to tourniquet the public’s bleeding ambition by paying attention for us, then sending out alerts anytime action is truly needed. The Declaration of Internet Freedom movement hopes to establish laws that will plug the legislative leaks that allow dangerous bills through the pipes in the first place. But in either case, we must all still care, act, sign, call. Without that, the power of “the Internet” will be lost.

At the heart of this battle lies a simple fact: The Web is still very new, its nature not yet defined. Legislation is just one way governments are trying to define the digital realm in which we all now live – a realm that politicians seem to understand less than anyone. The pushback against such bills is a rejection of those definitions. Companies like Facebook, Apple, Verizon, and many others have their own agendas and vision of what the Web should become. But in order for the Internet to flourish – whatever that may mean – you must develop your own ideas about this brave new world. And doing so does not require living in constant panic. It simply requires you to feed your curiosities, and to speak up from time to time.

In short, the Web has cracked open a well of questions that must be – and will be – answered. The first question we must ask is: Should the Web follow all the same rules as the physical world? The second question is: Who should answer these questions? As cliché as it may be, my answer for the latter is “You.”

In the coming weeks and months, Digital Trends’ State of the Web column will attempt to shed light on both what the Web is, in a broad cultural sense, as well as what it should become. Alas, the Web is many things to many people. My ideas are surely different from yours. But I believe it is vital that we get as many ideas about what form our connected dimension should take. Fail that, and we will be at the mercy of those with the worst ideas and even worse intentions – there will be no alternatives.

So while you’re sending work emails, commenting on Facebook, or blogging your favorite recipes, take a moment to consider all that the Internet offers, and how those options affect your life. Think about what you wish the Web could do. Finally, consider what life would be like if someone took away those options, or made them impossible in the first place. Because, whether you want it or not, the future of the Web sits on your shoulders. The goal here is to spread out the weight.