Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Book Review: Who Controls the Internet?

Who Controls the Internet?
Illusions of a Borderless World


By Jack Goldsmith and Tim Wu
(amazon.com)

Goldsmith and Wu's book is a down-to-earth examination of the relation between users, the Internet and national governments. It is a well written story of the evolution of the Internet, and a collection of case studies from the last decade. It documents conflicts between nations, between national laws, between cultural and political differences. With only 184 pages, the book doesn't contain any redundancies, doesn't try to convince the reader of fanciful future visions, and doesn't offer easy solutions.

I was very relieved to read the book because it finally clears out the naïveté that seems to have been so abundant in the early years of the Internet. It has always puzzled me how intelligent people could believe that anarchy works. Haven't we learned anything in the last some thousand years? Wasn't there a reason why our societies have laws and law enforcement, why we have governments to minimize friction and set a frame we can all live in together? Yes, one can have self-organization without institutionalized governance - if you have a small group of nice people who share common interests. But groups didn't stay small on the Internet, people aren't all nice, and eventually one has to find a way to exert power or run into chaos.

Needless to say, that chaos didn't happen because we are already living in societies were that power is constantly present, even if only seldom exerted - what matters much more is the possibility to exert it. And thus Internet users eventually came to realize that national governance does extend to the Internet, for better or for worse. But without it, we wouldn't have any legal basis for trade, for copyright, for free speech, to protect values that we consider important.

Goldsmith and Wu acknowledge the transformative potential of the Internet, but make the reality of the net very clear. They discuss various reasons why the Internet has national boundaries and differences. Language for example is one of them. Though it has been speculated the web would remain English dominated, this has turned out not to be the case. Fact is, many people prefer their own language. But more important than the language are cultural, social, and historical differences. There are differences in currency, climate, and consumer norms. These are all factors for why people in different nations simply have different interests, and these reflect in the structure of the information they share and search for.

Another reason for the Internet being attached to earthly reality is that though one can order a book with one click, it doesn't drop out of your screen if you do so. It has to be delivered to you, which binds companies to real places and spaces. Goldsmith and Wu also argue that connectivity and infrastructure is better in the virtual world where it is in the real world, which is the reason why large companies - even if their products are 'virtual' - preferably settle in the vicinity of large cities and not in the middle of nowhere. It's just where the music plays and you don't want to miss it.

The last reason they mention, and the one they put the most emphasis on, is governance. Eventually, “beneath the fog of modern technology” it is “coercive governmental force on local persons, firms and equipment” that makes for national differences, so they write. It is governments defending the interests of their citizens, by lawsuits, fines or by arrest.

They have plenty of examples for why governmental protection matters: Yahoo had to learn that France doesn't like Nazi paraphernalia be offered on websites available in its country - no matter where these websites come from. Eventually, Yahoo complied. Microsoft had to learn that European privacy laws are considerably stricter than US ones, and complied. Ebay had to learn that Indians are sensitive to sex videos, but more importantly, Ebay had to learn that if somebody cheats on you, you'll need a legal system to be able to punish them and to avoid cheating becomes commonplace. The authors spend a whole chapter on how the Chinese government censors and modifies Internet content, and uses it for their own purposes, and another chapter on the filesharing and copyright story of Kazaa and Napster.

In every case they explain how governments eventually exerted control. For example how the US government put an end to online cigarette sales that evaded state taxes: In 2005, the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms simply ordered several major credit card companies to stop taking orders. In the case of Kazaa, the industry filed thousands of lawsuits for filesharing. One might think that ridiculous given that an estimated 60 million people had used the legally problematic software, but this neglects the fact that most people actually didn't want to break laws. They just wanted convenience, and sueing some people made Kazaa sufficiently less convenient to allow the legally unproblematic iTunes to succeed. Examples of governmental exertion from China are significantly more dramatic though.

The authors also explicitly criticise the superior role Americans are sometimes claiming when it comes to the question how the Internet should be:

“[C]ritics of government control over the Net [...] believe that the U.S. First Amendment [and speech-protective U.S. libel laws] reflect universal values and [are] somehow written into the architecture of the Internet. But the First Amendment does not reflect universal values; to the contrary, no other nation embraces these values, and they are certainly not written into the Internet's architecture. [...]

The critics assume that wherever the Internet goes, it brings a single global cyberlaw with it, like a tortoise carrying its shell. The irony, of course, is that the tortoise shell is not a consensus global law, but rather the parochial U.S. First Amendment.”


However, they do by no means claim some consensus global laws are practical or even wishful. On the contrary, they make a case for a plurality of laws where possible, but for global solutions where necessary.

They also point out similarities between the rise of the Internet and earlier communication revolutions, such as the telegraph, the telephone, radio or TV. In all instances, this caused a shift in powers, caused a lot of people to feel uneasy, and it took some time until the appropriate legal structure was put in place to deal with these changes. We are now in this period of another communication revolution. If the challenges of these developments remain ununderstood or misunderstood, so they say, this might have grave disadvantages for the usefulness of the Internet in the long run. The result of the changes that have taken place especially with regard to China may be “the beginning of a technological version of the cold war, with each side pushing its own vision of the Internet's future.”

Throughout the book, the authors argue that the role of governments and regulation by laws is necessary to accompany the changes in our communication and data-sharing:

“As viruses, online fraud, spam, and other abuses add up, the greatest dangers for the future of the Internet come not when governments overreact, but when they don't react at all. The old and primary role of preventing harm and protecting rights must be translated to the present for the network to continue to grow and to prosper.”


What I generally missed in the book though were counterexamples for how the Internet on the contrary, has helped to make crossing between nation's boundaries easier. Just think of how developments in communication and data-sharing have pushed a lot of the outsourcing trends we've seen in the last decade. The complete lack of discussion of these developments makes one wonder how balanced the book is in total, or whether the authors just picked those cases that could be woven to a tale most easily.

Either way, I learned a lot from this book. If this was an amazon.com review I'd give five stars.

13 comments:

stefan said...

Dear Bee,

sounds like an interesting reading!

if you have a small group of nice people who share common interests

that may have been the utopian idea of the initial small group of users of the web ;-)

More about the topic of the book, I am quite confused sometimes about the dissolution of national boundaries through the web and its legal consequences. For example, if on this blog which runs on US-based servers I wrote something that's fine according to the First Amendment, but breaks German law, what will happen? Is there any law enforcement? Do they discuss this issue? The examples you quote seem to be more global in scope.

And do they say something about the power (and problems of manipulation) of ranking algorithms used by search engines? I mean, the "miserable failure" may have been a nice joke, but there could be more subtle and potentially dangerous examples?

Just think of how developments in communication and data-sharing have pushed a lot of the outsourcing trends we've seen in the last decade.

The influence of the internet on the global economy through the option of outsourcing whole business processes and typical "office jobs" and the local social consequences may be a topic for a book on its own...

Cheers, Stefan

QUASAR9 said...

lol Bee,
I thought the Internet was out of control - amazing how much stuff is actually in it that never gets seen or read - even more amazing how much stuff on it is neither factual or real, other than in the fact the falsehood exists for a moment in space & time.

QUASAR9 said...

Mind you I still think the universe is borderless, despite various governments, think tanks or perimeter institutes trying to impose various limits on it, and control the 'borders'? - lol

Though I must confess, increasingly the idea of galaxy blackholes being pin pricks in the fibre of space (and leading to parallel universes) is becoming 'attractive' - Pun intended

Bee said...

huh? what's PI got to do with anything?

QUASAR9 said...

"They discuss various reasons why the Internet has national boundaries and differences. Language for example is one of them. Though it has been speculated the web would remain English dominated, this has turned out not to be the case. Fact is, many people prefer their own language. But more important than the language are cultural, social, and historical differences. There are differences in currency, climate, and consumer norms. These are all factors for why people in different nations simply have different interests, and these reflect in the structure of the information they share and search for."

Hi Bee,
sorry if it went a bit over your head. I appreciate mention of PI can heighten sensitivities, but it was intended in any way as insulting, but simply as in the 'artificial borders' that are created by competing ideas, theories, think tanks (focus groups), Institutes, or even governments and national interests

"These are all factors for why people in different nations simply have different interests, and these reflect in the structure of the information they share and search for."

One could add to that, that competing ideas or theories, whilst on the one hand promoting or stimulating competing theories, also attract different people with different interests - who can become entrenched (with borders) either on the multiverse and/or parallel universes or the cyclic universe.

PS - There are sites I visit and sites I don't. Language will be an important factor - if I cannot read it or understand it (and google translator is still not up to scratch) then I will not visit.
Then there are varying dregrees of interest on one subject/topic or another - and of course Time. Time being crucial on how much or what I can visit or view.

There is a lot being said out there, and how much or how important what is 'controlled' or 'edited' for public consumption elsewhere is relative.

Alas even the relevance of Tianamen Square or what is happening in Gaza is relative. What is going on in the Banking World is relative - and not only relative but pretty much beyond our control.

And yes the only WMDs found in Iraq, are those dropped in there by the US - but who really cares anymore. It's all yesterday's news.

Kea said...

One should not confuse Change with Anarchy.

Thomas Larsson said...

But the shutdown on Napster and Kazaa led to the developments to new technology which is harder to stop. I read somewhere that everybody in Sweden that has been brought to court for filesharing had been using peer-to-peer networks; torrents are apparently too difficult to track down. It is somewhat surprising that a site like Pirate Bay can survive legally, though.

the_world_in_my_eyes said...

well it is true that commercial and sites representing certain organisations have a duty to obey the laws of respective countries but then again Bee, blogosphere, facebook...these are means where freedom is rampant. Freedom of speech, expression etc etc. We cannot hope for a completely free Internet because it is human nature for one person to show dislike and another person to show like.

Even the media on the Internet is an eye opener, you get biased and unbiased sources. If you surf through Google News, you can find more than a thousand articles on a major news story and if u surf through ten or twenty of those articles, you can get a more clearer, unbiased picture.

Even though companies may buy major Internet companies like Google or Yahoo or even Facebook, they certainly cannot control what passes through it at least in a country with little censorship. Check out my blog too, after reading yours, I felt *inspired* to write more haha.

nige said...

"Wasn't there a reason why our societies have laws and law enforcement, why we have governments to minimize friction and set a frame we can all live in together? Yes, one can have self-organization without institutionalized governance - if you have a small group of nice people who share common interests. But groups didn't stay small on the Internet, people aren't all nice, and eventually one has to find a way to exert power or run into chaos."

This is quite interesting. On the subject of the origins of the internet from the perspective of circumventing censorship/political groupthink, may I recommend the following New Scientist article?

http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg12416924.800-forum-on-the-importance-of-being-creative--innovativethinkers-should-be-allowed-to-come-to-the-fore-.html

"Creative thinkers are by their nature often isolated, their ideas either ignored or rejected, or sometimes simply taken up without any acknowledgment. But what if they could make contact with each other? ...

"Catt argues that as bodies of knowledge grow, they become stronger in keeping out any new items of knowledge that appear to question the fundamental base of the established knowledge and its practitioners. To assist the propagation of new ideas, he proposes the creation of an electronic information-sharing network. ..."

Around the time that was published in New Scientist in 1989, Tim Berners-Lee was developing technical side of the internet. Wikipedia page http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tim_Berners-Lee says:

'In 1989, CERN was the largest Internet node in Europe, and Berners-Lee saw an opportunity to join hypertext with the Internet: "I just had to take the hypertext idea and connect it to the Transmission Control Protocol and domain name system ideas and — ta-da! — the World Wide Web."'

As a programmer and network engineer who has studied physics extensively, I think the technical side of the internet is a load of technical trash. There are loads of possible ways of setting up networks, and the system in place is a matter of historical accident and change.

Money in fact controls the internet, because that's what buys AdWords or whatever on Google to generate hits and marketing success. Even if you don't directly pay for advertising (I don't), your success depends on how much time you put in to putting decent information on your webpage, and since time is money, basically you are paying for hits by devoting time to create decent blog articles or whatever content you provide. If you don't invest time (=money) into your site, you won't get many hits.

So the bottom line is, money controls the internet, just as money controls everything else. Money controls science, because you can't get much research done without it.

By the way, I don't think Galileo and Kepler were deemed "nice" people by their "peer reviewers", and vice-versa:

"Oh, my dear Kepler, how I wish that we could have one hearty laugh together! Here, at Padua, is the principal professor of philosophy whom I have repeatedly and urgently requested to look at the moon and planets through my glass, which he pertinaciously refuses to do. Why are you not here? What shouts of laughter we should have at this glorious folly! And to hear the professor of philosophy at Pisa laboring before the Grand Duke with logical arguments, as if with magical incantations, to charm the new planets out of the sky." - Letter of Galileo to Kepler (source: http://history-world.org/galileo_overthrows_ancient_philo.htm ).

Also, Einstein's work wasn't exactly greeted well by the vortex atom aether "experts" like Lord Kelvin. This is well documented by Sir Edmund Whittaker's "History of the Theories of Aether and Electricity" which invoked the wrath of Einstein's assistant and biographer Abraham Pais.

I don't think therefore that real science is about trying to be "nice" and to socialize, otherwise you end up agreeing with things that are wrong just to fit in to status quo without friction. Science isn't about trying not to fit in either. It's just ascertaining facts (however pleasant or unpleasant those facts are to other people who claim to be scientists themselves). Socializing and trying to be nice to people is an activity better left to the pub after work, not fitted into conferences and meetings. Otherwise you get groupthink emerging, just as you do in political "parties" and in mob culture where a group of people all riot together to fit in with one another, for fear of being called "square" or some other unpopular label.

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

You might have been curious as to why before this I haven’t made comment on this your most recent post. It not that I don’t find the subject matter or your comments interesting or relevant, its simply that I found not much to be added beyond what is found here. However today there was one thing that sprang to mind in light of the current events. Which is to ask does the internet as it’s now structured and envisioned help, hinder or is a benign instrument of communication and understanding in such instances or any situations of concern.

On one hand I might argue that because of the high noise to signal ratio, as it’s called, that more misinformation is spread then truth. On the other hand we might say that the speed of it tends to hasten events to both have the initial downside be realized and yet at the same time the upside comes quicker.

This thought was triggered resultant of a comment made on your saving the economy post that reminded that the U.S. had not taken actions as we have seen since the 1930’s. However, those actions were taken some years after the event it addressed. This has me wonder, was such action taken so quickly this time within the span of days rather then years because of the lessons of history or did the internet have a hand in shortening the time span consistent with the speed of the news arriving and the consensus formed being made aware of? I have no answer, yet I find it interesting to wonder none the less.

Best,

Phil

maxine said...

Excellent review.

bellamy said...

nige seems keen there. I might add to look at WIRED a lot. Especially Bruce Sterling's WIRED blog, not to mention his writing and stuff.

Re - quasar/PI comment: I got it.

Bee said...

Hi Nige,

Thanks for the link to the NewScientist article, that is interesting.

So the bottom line is, money controls the internet, just as money controls everything else. Money controls science, because you can't get much research done without it.

Sadly enough, that is true to a large extend. It doesn't necessarily have to be so though, and it's not entirely the case. There are people who use the internet primarily to get attention. Think of teenagers on YouTube. Sure, attention is often correlated with money but it's not a priori the same.

As to science, at least in academia I doubt that many people do it for the money. It's not the kind of job you choose to get rich. It is however true that financial pressure has today a large impact on research. You know from my previous posts that I consider this to be of concern.

Either way, it's what you get if you don't pay attention to developments and what happens if you believe that self-organization is always a good thing.

Best,

B.