Who Controls the Internet?


Who Controls the Internet? Illusions of a Borderless World’ is a 2006 book by law professors Jack Goldsmith and Tim Wu that offers an assessment of the struggle to control the Internet. Starting with a discussion of the early vision of a borderless global community, the authors present some of the most prominent individuals, ideas, and movements that have played key roles in developing the Internet.

The book asserts the important role of government in maintaining Internet law and order while debunking the claims of techno-utopianism that have been espoused by theorists such as Thomas Friedman. In the 1990s the Internet was greeted as the ‘New New Thing’: It would erase national borders, give rise to communal societies that invented their own rules, undermine the power of governments. Goldsmith and Wu explain why these early assumptions were mostly wrong. The Internet turns out to illustrate the enduring importance of Old Old Things, such as law and national power and business logic.

The authors begin by discussing the early days of the Internet through the 1990s, when Julian Dibbell and John Perry Barlow articulated a libertarian vision that gained wide currency in the public imagination. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (a non-profit digital rights advocacy organization) worked to protect the Internet from regulation in the belief that a free online community might unite people and melt government away. However, Jon Postel’s attempt to assert control over the root naming and numbering system in 1998 was short-lived, as the U.S. government flexed its power in order to protect its national defense and business interests.

Users in different places with widely varying cultures and preferences want information presented in their local language and context, the authors explain. Governments use a number of techniques to pressure or control local intermediaries to restrict Internet content that a majority of its citizens find unacceptable, such as the sale of Nazi paraphernalia in France. Of course, bad government begets bad policy: the authors tell us how China uses its powers of censorship to block dissent and publishes propaganda that cultivates a virulent form of nationalism. The authors illustrate how compromised government can work by showing how the contest in the US between the RIAA and Kazaa ultimately enabled Apple’s iTunes to emerge as a legally acceptable service that exploits copyright laws and the public’s preference for using the Internet to source and download music.

The authors present an interesting case study about eBay and its founder’s idealistic faith in the inherent goodness of the Internet community; we learn that when the company found its business model severely challenged by fraud, a resolution to the crisis was made workable with the assistance of local law enforcement. According to the authors, eBay, the case of an Australian libel lawsuit against a US publisher, and Microsoft’s acquiescence to European Union regulation of its ‘Passport’ service are examples of how the bordered Internet seeks to protect citizens from harm. They argue that as a communications medium, the Internet is not unlike other technologies that have come before and therefore the Internet is not likely to displace territorial government. Rather, it is more likely, the authors speculate, that cultural and political differences may be leading us into a technological Cold War where the US, EU, and China develop their own competitive Internet platforms.


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