Illusions of a Borderless World
By Jack Goldsmith and Tim Wu
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.