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The Internet: For Better or for Worse

Miraflores Palace/Reuters
Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez presiding over the opening of a community Internet center in Caracas during his weekly television show, Alo Presidente, March 2010

They acknowledge the potential of all technology to be co-opted by authoritarians and dismiss the argument that “connection technologies are going to transform the world alone.” Still, drawing on ideas that appeared in New York University media theorist Clay Shirky’s 2008 book, Here Comes Everybody, they argue that faster and faster computing power, combined with the many-to-many geometry of social media (as opposed to the one-to-many geometry of television and radio broadcasting), is creating “an era when the power of the individual and the group grows daily.” The political effects will include a notable increase in the pace of change itself—a world of volatility, speed, and surprise.

The Internet, that is, presents new communication structures that, in the view of Cohen and Schmidt, will alter global politics in ways that earlier communications technologies did not. The net effect will be to decentralize power. Therefore, only dictators who are creative and technology-savvy are likely to prevail over their wired peoples: governments will either “ride the technological wave” or “find themselves at odds with their citizens,” as Schmidt and Cohen put it. In some ways, this is consistent with Morozov’s thesis—his book documents just how digitally adaptive authoritarian governments have become.

Even if we accept this analysis, it is less than obvious what it implies for American policy and expenditure. Not even the secretary of state seems entirely sure. Clinton delivered the second of her major speeches on Internet freedom on February 15, in response to the revolts in the Middle East. She sought, she said, to inaugurate “a much more vigorous debate that will respond to the needs that we have been watching” in the Arab world and Iran.

There is a debate currently underway in some circles about whether the Internet is a force for liberation or repression,” Clinton acknowledged. “But I think that debate is largely beside the point.” That was rhetorical misdirection, as it turned out, for Clinton promptly joined the debate:

Egypt isn’t inspiring people because they communicated using Twitter. It is inspiring because people came together and persisted in demanding a better future. Iran isn’t awful because the authorities used Facebook to shadow and capture members of the opposition. Iran is awful because it is a government that routinely violates the rights of its people. So it is our values that cause these actions to inspire or outrage us….

Clinton went on to argue, nevertheless, that the Internet does have distinctive qualities as a venue for politics. Social media have become, she said, the “public space of the twenty-first century,” akin to the physical public squares where democratic ideals were rekindled in Western societies centuries ago.

To enlarge this new virtual public space, “we need to have a serious conversation about the principles that will guide us, what rules exist and should not exist and why.” She avoided any suggestion that the United States use the Internet to foment liberation struggles in authoritarian countries—that would be a provocative goal, if it were made explicit. “The goal is not to tell people how to use the Internet any more than we ought to tell people how to use any public square, whether it’s Tahrir Square or Times Square,” Clinton said.

There was much lawyerly pragmatism in her framing, undergirded by an unmistakably Wilsonian exhortation:

I urge countries everywhere…to join us in the bet we have made, a bet that an open Internet will lead to stronger, more prosperous countries…that open societies give rise to the most lasting progress…. This is not a bet on computers or mobile phones. It’s a bet on people.

Her rhetoric endorsing social media was bolder than the running commentary she and President Obama sometimes offered about particular tottering dictators; in the case of the revolt against Hosni Mubarak, for example, the administration’s cautious remarks often ran well behind the aspirations of the Egyptian people.

As to a practical “freedom to connect” policy agenda, “we believe there is no silver bullet in the struggle against Internet repression,” Clinton averred. The Obama administration will therefore experiment, adopting a “venture capital–style approach, supporting a portfolio of technologies, tools, and training” in projects designed to sustain an “Internet that is open, secure, and reliable.”

One danger such a pathway presents is that it may lead to incremental, government-led rulemaking, as if what is required to secure freedom of speech and assembly on the global Internet is some international version of the Federal Communications Commission. That would be deeply questionable, judging by the FCC’s embarrassing history in the United States, and the history of similar regulatory bodies worldwide. It is a story marked mainly by collusion with monopolizing industry and government, as well as the suppression of innovation and speech. Before the United States devotes itself to the civilizing mission of Internet freedom abroad, then, it might be wise to think more deeply about what it will take to protect the “freedom to connect” at home.

Early radio was, before the Internet, the greatest open medium in the twentieth century, and perhaps the most important example since the early days of newspaper of what an open, unrestricted communications economy looks like,” Tim Wu writes in The Master Switch, his brilliant interpretive history of American media and communications technology during the last century.

In radio’s early amateur phase, from around 1912 until the late 1920s, low economic barriers and diverse voices gave rise to an almost limitless sense of possibility. Churches, clubs, oddballs, gadget hounds, and sports entrepreneurs launched radio stations that could reach listeners over a few square miles. By the end of 1924, American manufacturers had sold more than two million radio sets capable of broadcasting. Dense urban areas such as Manhattan tuned in to a cacophony on the airwaves. Nikola Tesla, who helped to commercialize electricity, believed that because of radio, “the entire earth will be converted into a huge brain, as it were, capable of response in every one of its parts.” Waldemar Kaempffert, the editor of Scientific American, imagined how the technology might build a new social cohesion and change American politics:

Look at a map of the United States and try to conjure up a picture of what home radio will eventually mean. All these disconnected communities and houses will be united through radio as they were never united by the telegraph and the telephone.

We know now that these hopes were unfounded. Radio affected American culture in important ways but it did not improve and broaden American democracy from the bottom up. Nor did the space for free speech expand in the United States; rather, in comparison to the heyday of amateur radio broadcasting, that space steadily contracted until the 1960s.

Wu chronicles with verve and outrage how David Sarnoff’s monopolizing ambition at the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) snuffed out radio’s initial diversity fast. By the 1930s, on the radio airwaves, Wu writes, “what was once a wide-open medium…was now poised to become big business, dominated by a Radio Trust; what was once an unregulated technology would now come under the strict command and control of a federal agency,” the nascent FCC. What RCA accomplished in a free-market system, Hitler and Stalin imitated in their much darker ways; radio in Nazi Germany became, under Joseph Goebbels, “a central instrument in achieving volksgemeinschaft, the unified national community.”

There were many reasons for the shrinking of the American public square between the 1930s and the 1960s. A subsuming national effort was required to win World War II, only to be followed by the Red Scare. Throughout, however, the industrial and federal management of communication technology—which favored control over diversity, and consensus over marginal or dangerous speech—played a reinforcing role.

Monopolizing radio networks blocked the deployment of television technology. Monopolizing film studios, pressured by the Catholic Church (whose censors were scandalized by Mae West’s performance in I’m No Angel), adopted the self-censoring Production Code. As a result, for decades, Americans saw only films in which, for example, “an individual judge or policeman could be dishonest, but not the whole judicial system.” It was, he writes, “the combination of the Church and the Hollywood studio system that produced one of the most dramatic regimes of censorship in American history.” He concludes that “industry structure,” more than the technical properties of a communications system, “is what determines the freedom of expression in the underlying medium.” This is an insight of great importance, and it has obvious relevance for the future of the Internet as a social, cultural, and political medium, in the United States and globally.

The Master Switch’s account of the rise and fall of information technologies and industries during the twentieth century is fascinating, balanced, and rigorous—a tour de force. Yet Wu’s central concern is not history; it is the contested future of the Internet. Wu is a professor of law at Columbia University; he is perhaps best known for having coined the phrase “net neutrality,” a principle, or aspiration, meant to assure that the Internet remains an open system where anyone can publish or connect, and where pricing and technical rules are never biased to favor one user over another, even if that user is a very large and wealthy corporation.

In essence, Wu is concerned that large corporations—AT&T, Comcast, Verizon, Apple, and perhaps Google—may be on the verge of carving the Internet into an oligopoly, gradually shutting off equal and free access, much as RCA did to radio and the Bell System did to telephony. By implication, his arguments make plain that if corporations do gradually take control of the American Internet, and use tolls and technical rules to build a new hierarchy of access, then Russia, China, and other authoritarian states wielding even greater relative power within their borders will be sure to follow that model.

Wu labels the pattern of oscillation between open and closed information systems “the Cycle.” As it reaches the present day, his account frames what he calls the “central question” about communications systems in our time. It is essentially the same question that Mozorov, Clinton, and the State Department’s Internet thinkers have wrestled with in their different ways: “Was the Internet truly different, a real revolution?”

If the answer is yes, he suggests, much of the reason lies in the Internet’s design. Its “priority was human augmentation rather than the system itself,” as Wu puts it. “The aim was therefore an effort to create a decentralized network, and one that would stay that way.” The accidental birth of computers as communications devices, connected through a network that could pass through other networks, has been recounted before. Wu elegantly and briefly describes the features of the Internet’s technical design that have contributed to its layered, redundant, self-protecting structure. Because they lacked a communications infrastructure of their own, or the capital to create one, the Internet’s founders—J.C.R. Licklider, Douglas Engelbart, Vincent Cerf, and others—“were forced, however fortunate the effect may now seem, to invent a protocol that took account of the existence of many networks,” for example, commercial telephone lines and closed government systems, “over which they had limited power.” These workarounds produced a design striking for “its resemblance to other decentralized systems, such as the federal system of the United States.”

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