Thu, 28 Dec 2006

Who Controls the Internet?: Illusions of a Borderless World

— SjG @ 12:30 pm

by Jack Goldsmith and Tim Wu, Oxford University Press, 2006

This interesting three-part book describes the evolution of the Internet from an academic network governed by utopian techno-idealists into an increasingly partitioned collection of networks under the control of national governments. It also predicts that the future will continue in this direction of many localized nets.

The overall conclusion of the book is that this evolution is a (mostly) Good Thing[tm], as human beings can’t be trusted to conduct business without the treat of violence. The assumption that the purpose of the internet is to facilitate business is not really questioned. Of course, I’m oversimplifying their case. There is also discussion of the value of information, its relationship to proximity, and the desire to allow enforcement of local standards.

I remember many of the events described in the history — most notably, the transfer of the DNS Root and its aftermath — but can’t say I really appreciated their significance at the time. I do recall being impressed with the anarchic, cooperative culture of the early internet. The philosophy of the Cypherpunks (e.g., “information wants to be free”) is a compelling idea, except when it comes to my credit card number. John Gilmore’s famous saying that “the net interprets censorship as damage, and routes around it” is also a sentiment I still feel is powerful, but I fear that the mechanisms of censorship are getting ever more sophisticated. I also still have hope that ubiquitous communication can help humanity.

However, Wu and Goldsmith’s points are well made. I remember, in particular, believing in 1995 that the internet was going to connect everyone in the world, and promote an unprecedented era of communication and peace. After all, I was in communication with people all over the world using the internet (in English, of course). Then, in December of ’95, I embarked on a trip through Asia and the Middle-East. Something about these utopian beliefs kept nagging at the back of my mind as my travels progressed, and I met people in different countries and from different backgrounds. It wasn’t until months later, on a bus ride through the Sinai Peninsula, where from my window I could see Bedouins struggling against a mini-sandstorm that the realization broke through. Yes, these people and I share a common humanity — but then, that was about the limit of what we shared. If I were to visit with them, I could perhaps learn of their beliefs, culture, hopes, expectations, and so on. But simply tapping words into a keyboard from half a world away, such an exchange would be nearly impossible. How could I begin to understand their world without seeing, feeling, and smelling it?

Well, today, I have friends I have never personally met, throughout many nations that I have never visited. I chat with them, some daily, as I work on projects. I communicate with them mostly in English, a little bit in German, and even less in Spanish. Does this contradict my pessimism above? Well, yes and no. We have a common starting point (e.g., the projects), and, to be frank, relatively common culture: we are, for the most part, Europeans, Americans, Australians.

So maybe the internet is not the borderless world we once hoped for, but it’s also not (yet) the parochial collections of fiefdoms that it could become.

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