For many people, the Internet’s structure was—indeed remains—deeply counterintuitive. This is because it defies every expectation one has developed from experience of other media industries, which are all predicated on control of the customer.
The Internet’s distributed structure contributes to the impact it has had on speech, assembly, and politics—it has lowered economic barriers to entry for publishers and activists alike, and it has enabled peer-to-peer or many-to-many audience strategies (“going viral,” as it is known) that seem to favor bottom-up political activity.
This is not to suggest that political command and control of the Internet is impossible, only that it is harder than, say, control of a national broadcast television network. “The feat requires such power and resources as belong uniquely to the state: access to the very choke points of a nation’s communications infrastructure, its Master Switch,” Wu writes. States have occasionally undertaken direct technical interventions—narrowing the system’s choke points enough to turn the entire Internet off, as China has done periodically to control protests in its restive Xinjiang province, and as Egypt did for a few days during the recent uprising. More effective, as Morozov documents, are strategies that infect and influence the Internet’s open streams. Arguably, as he shows, the governments of China, Russia, Iran, and Venezuela have controlled their people’s access to the Internet adequately enough to protect their power.
The question at home and abroad, then, is whether the decentralized, redundant, distributed shape of the Internet will tip that balance further in favor of centralized powers by yielding to the Cycle—the consolidating patterns of monopoly and state control that shaped radio and television—or whether the Internet will remain a radically open system, biased toward users over authorities. “The individual holds more power than at any time in the past century, and literally in the palm of his hand,” Wu writes. “Whether or not he can hold on to it is another matter.”
Wu posits that in the United States, two competing coalitions of multinational corporations are now battling to determine whether commerce, publishing, speech, politics, and design will take place over the Internet within an open system or a closed one. On one side, the business models of Google, Amazon, eBay, Facebook, and nonprofits such as Wikipedia gave them incentives to try to “convert as much of the world as they can into something that looks like the Internet: a clear, free path between any two points, with no hierarchy or preferential treatment.” (This may be somewhat hopeful about, say, the Google Books project and its proposed deal with publishers and authors.) On the other side, the business models of Apple, AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, Disney, and other conglomerates gave them incentives to lobby at the FCC and Congress for “a rational regime of access and flow of information” based on ownership of the wires, cables, and spectrum over which the Internet flows—infrastructure that some of these companies paid to build, and that others are prepared to pay to control. “If this side has its way,” Wu forecasts, “the twenty-first-century world of information will look, as much as possible, like that of the twentieth century, except that the screens that consumers are glued to will be easier to carry.”
It is not at all clear how this struggle will turn out. The FCC’s authority to impose openness on the Internet is being contested in the courts. The relatively limited amount of data that wireless systems can carry has led industry and the FCC to consider proposals to limit equal access. The rationale is technical, to control system-degrading “data hogs” bent on downloading information-dense video entertainment and the like, but the potential for creeping restrictions to shelter corporate profit is plain.
Ultimately, the preservation of an open Internet, and of the empowerment of individuals it promises—the preservation of virtual public spaces—will require its beneficiaries to fight to keep it. It will require “the cultivation of a popular ethic concerning our society’s relation to information, an ethic consistent with the importance of information in our individual and collective lives,” one that is grounded in “awareness of the imminent perils of a closed system.” Whether sufficient numbers of people will acquire such awareness and act on it is not at all clear. But Wu’s insights are entirely convincing. The greatest single contribution that Western societies can make to the Internet’s potential to empower repressed populations abroad would be to preserve at home the very openness of social media that has inspired the likes of Wael Ghonim.