Reconsidering control and freedom on the internet

Alex Wellerstein | 9 February 2012 | Respond

Does anybody still believe cyberspace is a land without controls, without borders, without laws? The Internet-is-freedom hype from the mid-1990s seems to have finally died out even amongst popular commentators, to say nothing about more sophisticated analysts who have been saying this for some time now.

There are two now-obvious reasons that the border-less Internet was a mythical beast. The first is that the infrastructure of the Internet is rooted firmly within national borders. The Internet is nothing if not its infrastructure, the wired and wireless connections between individual computers that make up its communication network. While the popular idea of this is as a completely decentralized, unruly mess, in reality most of the main passageways are controlled by a handful of major corporations, and these corporations are, unsurprisingly, not only influenced by national laws, but are also the creators of laws that serve their corporate interests (e.g. the “net neutrality” issue, where the central contention is whether broadband carriers can set up different bandwidth pricing schemes based on the sites being visited).

The second is that the powers-that-be — the governments and corporations which have the most stakes in regulating certain types of communication — are considerably more powerful than the powers-that-would-be-free. This is not a conspiratorial statement; rather, it is a simple observation that the resources that can be spent on controlling information vastly outnumber the resources available by those who would like it to be free.

The result has been a progressive clamping down on communication freedoms that shows no sign of abating. In the political realm, authoritarian governments such as the People’s Republic of China, Iran, and Syria have shown remarkable ability to penetrate net anonymity, filter net traffic, and generally use the Internet as a means of augmenting their cultures of surveillance. Less autocratic governments, such as that of the United States, have pursued the latter course with some zeal as well. (For a disturbing account of the National Security Agency’s technical abilities and its lack of strong institutional belief in the Fourth Amendment, this New Yorker article is eye-opening.) But these political/security efforts are only half of the story. Attempts to regulate content generation, sharing, and communication in the name of copyright have generally been increasing over time, and show little signs of diminishing.

At the same time, attempts to un-control (or make more unruly) have also been increasing. WikiLeaks is one obvious manifestation of this tendency, in its attempts to leverage the power of massive information disclosure against governments and corporations. In some respects it has been successful, at least in establishing itself as a symbol of un-controllability. In other respects, it has displayed the limits of such freedom. Individuals can be tracked down and prosecuted; servers can be enjoined, hacked, and shut down; and all of this requires money, and the means of transferring money are, unsurprisingly, heavily regulated and capable of being disrupted by official agencies through financial blockades and frozen assets.

On the commercial side of information flow, the use of communications for illegal acquisition or distribution of copyrighted material has, if anything, increased over the last two decades. File sharing has become trivially easy, and the rising number of offenders has clearly overwhelmed the ability, and perhaps will, of states to prosecute. According to a recent study, around 46% of American adults have participated in some form of online “piracy,” and 70% of Americans between the ages 18-29 have done so. The same study also shows majorities of Americans against the idea of strong government regulation for the purposes of copyright control, and against harsh penalties for offenders.

What questions should STS scholars be asking about these trends? What analytical approaches do we have to offer?

One clear approach is to point out that the dichotomies of bordered/borderless and lawful/lawless are quite limited. Even in “real world” (non-cyberspace) locations, the categories of “freedom” and “control” are non-exclusive, and it is clear that there are multiple axes along which spectrums of control/freedom operate. (And, as in governance, freedom and control need not even be opposites, in the sense that collective anarchy is not conducive to individual freedom.) It may very well be the case that cyberspace presents an unprecedented situation with regard to the complexity of jurisdiction, anonymity (or specific lack thereof), and regulation (or specific lack thereof). But analyzing it purely in terms of static binaries is bound to be wrong.

An obvious approach is to consider the ways in which infrastructural choices aid or hamper traditional attempts at control. These approaches are common in the history of technology, but translating them into general policy directives more specific than “infrastructure is important” or “make changes that enable rather than hinder freedom” remains the clear challenge. It would serve the STS community well to not necessarily take for granted that maximal amounts of freedom, and minimal amounts of control, are the aim. This assumption, present in the “information-wants-to-be-free” demographic of the online community, has its obvious appeal. But there are forms of “speech” that even well-intentioned civil libertarians should find problematic, such as the distribution of child pornography, or the advocacy of violence. In any event, the history of mass media shows quite clearly that total freedom is the exception, not the rule. Finding a way for an analyst to navigate the stormy sea of freedom vs. control arguments without falling into either of the actor categories seems like the sort of project that STS scholars would be uniquely qualified to accomplish.

Lastly, STS can offer insight into the ways in which a multitude of national regulatory systems create shifting possibilities for contestation with regard to the relative freedom or control of mass communication networks. The tools developed in studying other national and international regulatory regimes — for example, the notions of technological imaginaries, regimes of comparative expertise, and disciplining regimes of politics-with-a-small-“p” — should be deployed in the discussion of issues such as piracy, political speech control, and the creation of “safe havens” for prohibited materials of all kinds. STS scholars are uniquely positioned to analyze the interactions between the technical, political, and economic aspects of infrastructure development with regard to these communications technologies that do not transcend borders, but multiply inhabit or reconfigure them.

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