This month two important negotiations happen that could affect anyone who uses the Internet.
In Auckland, there is a negotiating round for the Trans Pacific Partnership, a managed economic and trade pact that includes an intellectual property chapter that has to be seen to be believed: that branch of Hollywood known as the US Trade Rep has pushed for things like outlawing parallel importing, and even trying to create property rights in data on the Internet while it is in transit. (Barking crazy stuff, really.)
Half a world away in Dubai, a centuries-old UN organ called the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) is looking at a 1988 treaty for review, with some member states seeking to impose old phone network charging models on the Internet, or legitimacy for snooping on their citizens, or (if you believe the most critical accounts) trying to take coordination of Internet numbering and naming off the private sector and into the hands of governments.
Yawn, so what, you're possibly thinking.
The old industries that have been damaged by the rise of the Internet use every means at their disposal to fight back.
Big movies, big music, big telcos, Big Brother: they all hate the changes that the Internet has brought about. They don't like their revenue disappearing. They don't like the fact anyone can publish and distribute their views online to a global audience. They raise fierce claims of piracy and damage.
It's all nonsense, of course. There are more movies, more music, more news sites, more opinion and commentary, more shared expression than has ever happened before. The conditions the old Bigs claim will destroy their industries have done the opposite - even for the Bigs that complain about them.
So why do some governments react in favour of the bigs and the olds, ignoring their citizens interests? Set aside the wishes of repressive regimes to get their sticky fingers on the 'net...
It's a problem as old as economics. When someone has a pile of money they will fight hard to protect it, and by definition they usually have the ability to fight that fight. The NZ experience of this is farmers demanding huge subsidies in the 70s, or the cheap power demands of the aluminium smelter, or rental home owners' aversion to capital taxes.
What would happen if these twin attacks succeed? Easy: more costs for Internet users. Less available content. Less privacy. Less innovation.
It's the open nature of the Internet that people in my line of work have been fighting for. The Internet as it is and should be is a platform founded on ideals of freedom. People follow the protocols and can develop any services they want. Email. World Wide Web. Torrents. Voice. These allow low cost high speed sharing and service all over the globe. Online travel; maps; social media; on and on it goes.
An Internet built on the values of some of the negotiators in the TPP and the ITU would never have taken off. It would not work. The free and open exchange many of us take for granted would not be here today.
New Zealand is on the side of the angels in this so far, in the ITU reliably. The TPP is harder: what if the choice is to trade off the Internet (say through crazy copyright and patent reforms) to get more beef and dairy access?
For me that's obvious: we wouldn't sign, simple as that. Others think we would have to. The cabinet is full of farmers. The temptation to back the old economy, which for all its faults does provide us with an income today, is obvious. Strangling the new economy would be easy in the short term, for there isn't much of it to fight back.
I'd be horrified if that happened, because we are hitting the physical limits of our old economy. There is only so much grass we can grow, coal we can mine, milk we can churn, trees we can chop. There aren't any comparable limits to our imaginations or creativity.
If we want a high wage, clean economy, it won't come from the old. It will come from the new.
That's why these two negotiations matter, so keep your eyes and ears open.