Regulation is everything, or power abhors a vacuum

Can we really control the Internet? This is question has been around long enough to be deemed a golden oldie. But like a fungal infection it keeps coming back…

The early battle lines were drawn up in 1996. In an age where cyberspace was both a cool and correct term lawyers like Johnson & Post wrote “Law And Borders: The Rise of Law in Cyberspace” and activists like John Perry Barlow wrote his epic “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace“.These were the cool and heady days of the cyberlibertarians vs cyberpaternalists. The libs believed that the web should & could not be regulated while the pats meant that it could and should. (I covered this in my thesis pdf here) Since then the terminology has changed but sentiments remain the same.

I miss the term cyberspace. But more to the point the “could/should” control argument continues. Nicklas has written an interesting point on the could part:

Fast forward twenty years. Bandwidth has doubled once, twice, three times. Devices capable of setting up ad hoc networks – large ones – are everywhere. Encrypted protocols are of state-defying strength and available to everyone. Tech savvy generations have grown up to expect access to the Internet not only as a given, but as unassailable. Networks like Anonymous has iterated, several times, and found topologies, communication practices and collaboration methods that defy tracking. The once expensive bottleneck technologies have become cheaper, the cost of building a network slowly approaching zero. The Internet has become a Internet that can be re-instantiated for a large swath of geography by a single individual.

So far so good. Not one internet but personal portable sharable spaces. The inability to control will lead to a free internet. But something feels wrong. Maybe its a cynical sadness of having heard this all before and seeing it all go wrong? From his text I get images of Johnny Mnemonic and The Matrix basically the hacker hero gunslinger fighting the anonymous faceless oppressive society. Its cool, but is it true?

The technology is (on some level) uncontrollable (without great oppression) but the point is that it does not have to be completely controlled. The control in society via technology is not about having 100% surveillance and pure systems which cannot be hacked. Control is about having reasonable amounts of failure in the system (System failures allow dissidents to believe they are winning).

The issue I have with pinning my hopes on the unregulatable internets is that they are – in social terms – an end to themselves. Who will connect to these nets? Obviously those who are in the know. You will connect when you know where & how to connect. This is a vital goal in itself but presents a problem for using these nets in wider social change. Getting information across to a broader section of the population.

Civil disobedience is a fantastic tool. But if the goal is disobedience in itself it is hardly justifiable in a group. If the goal is to bring about social change: ie. the goal is for a minority to convince a majority then the minority must communicate with the majority. If the nets are going to work we need to find ways for the majority to connect to them. If the majority can connect to them then so can the oppressive forces of regulation.

On the field of pats & libs I think I am what is a cynical libertarian. I am convinced of the power, value, social & individual power of non-regulation of technology but I don’t believe that politicians and lobbyists will leave technology alone. It’s an unfortunate truth: power hates a vacuum.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.