Who Controls the Internet? Jack Goldsmith and Tim Wu Oxford, $28.00, 226 pages
When the Internet ceased being a techno-scientific novelty and entered the world of mass consumption and communication, commentators and businessmen alike heralded its arrival as the next step in the new post-Cold War era. This was to be a new world order after the “end of history,” one that transcended outmoded paradigms like ideological conflict (a staple of the 20th century) and the supremacy of the nation-state as an actor in international politics (which goes back at least to the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648).
In this halcyon time—yes before 9/11 but, what is more, before nation-states even realized their sovereignty was being questioned—visionaries like Village Voice writer Julian Dibbell and Electronic Frontier Foundation founder John Perry Barlow (and just last week a purveyor of “truthiness” on the Colbert Report) talked of moving the world to a new post-territorial system. The Internet was to be a sort of cyber-libertarian utopia, self-governing and with room for billions of flowers to bloom.
More importantly, this seemingly Hayekian experiment in ordered liberty would speed old, tired country-centric legal and political regimes into the globalization of the 21st century. To promote economic growth while coping with certain “market failures”—and to maintain a modicum of control over their ostensible jurisdictions—wouldn’t nations have to cooperate and embrace international standards of security, privacy, and taxation (to name just a few)?
Not so fast, came the response of the slumbering “bricks-and mortar” governments. From the U.S.’s rebuff of Jon Postel’s attempt to privatize “root authority” (the master computer for the entire Internet), to France’s forcing Yahoo! to pull Nazi memorabilia off its auction sites (hosted on servers in California), to China’s heavy-handed censorship (aided by Microsoft and everyone else who wants in on this growing market), it became clear that in this brave new world, plus ça change, plus c’est le droit du souverain.
So Who Controls The Internet?, asks the provocative new book by Jack Goldsmith and Tim Wu, of Harvard and Columbia University, respectively. The perhaps counter-intuitive answer, that governments do (much like they “control”—in the sense of “regulate”—every new technology, from radio to air travel). Nothing has really changed beyond the need to revamp laws in fields such as communications, pornography, national security, and the like. As the book’s subtitle puts it, we only experience the “illusions of a borderless world.” [Full disclosure: Goldsmith was one of my favorite professors in law school, and one of the classes I had with him was on sovereignty and the origins of the nation-state.]
Yet the conventional wisdom-defying conclusion of Who Controls the Internet? , that the Internet is controlled at the level of the nation-state, is not necessarily a bad thing. At the most basic level, nation-states maintain the rules of the game (enforcing contracts, prosecuting fraud) that makes a company like eBay viable.
Nor is it at cross-purposes with increasing trans-national commercial, inter-cultural understanding, and other aspects of globalization. If the name of the game is now sharing information and facilitating the most efficient flow of capital, goods, and services, then well, government regulation here is no different (and is arguably less restrictive than) in the physical world.
In the meantime, as globalization gurus incessantly argue, the Internet and related technologies have made us all next door neighbors, and are killing geography, distance, and language. For example, “video phones,” still a science-fictional dream 20 years ago, are now not only commonplace but companies like Skype (founded by file-sharing pioneer Niklas Zennstrom) can offer them for free—and without using conventional phone lines.
State power certainly affects the “cyber-lives” of its inhabitants—think American gambling laws, European consumer protection, British libel laws—but the differences in public policy approaches to such issues only further support the concept of a decentralized approach to Internet regulation. As Goldsmith and Wu conclude, “the United States, China, and Europe are using their coercive powers to establish different visions of what the Internet might be.”
But—and the authors don’t argue otherwise—isn’t it better that New Zealand and Estonia are responsible for overseeing their citizens’ internet activities, instead of some U.N. agency (like an “Internet Freedom Council” composed of Myanmar, Saudi Arabia, and Cuba)? Indeed, it is fully in line with classical liberal theory to suggest that any type of regulation should fall to the most local government feasible.
At the same time, without inter-governmental cooperation, how would a “self-governing” Internet be able to police cyber-crime or referee cross-border trade disputes? It is not that the Internet is limited, but that people are; people live in the real world, not some virtual one.
The larger point—and it is a simple one that the book hammers home—is that while people physically reside in nation-states, and prefer their customs, social norms, and market forces to be undergirded by territorial government and physical coercion, nation-states will not lose their relevance or power. Those who miss that point misunderstand both human nature and the true extent of the information revolution.
Ilya Shapiro, a Washington lawyer, writes the “Dispatches from Purple America” column for TCS Daily.com.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire