Written by Guest Author Jeremy Pesner
Next month, the World Conference on Information Technology (WCIT), sponsored by the United Nations’ International Telecommunications Union (ITU), will hold a meeting to discuss whether the Internet and its governing bodies should be brought under UN control. However, this flies in the face of how the Internet has developed throughout its multi-decade history. The Internet was built through collaboration between scholars, developers, universities, and government working together as equals. These principles of transparency, inclusiveness, and cooperation are what enabled the development of a common infrastructure and universal set of standards (Cerf). Is this rich, successful multistakeholder history of governance at risk? Not likely. Current cultural attitudes indicate that the majority of the Internet will likely remained governed in the fashion that has enabled its success.
One reason to believe that the Internet’s open structure will not be compromised is because the World Wide Web has already escaped that fate. In the mid-1990s, most Internet users accessed the web through America Online. However, users were trapped inside a “walled garden” and could only access AOL pages, created and curated by America Online, rather than the browser-neutral webpages accessed today.
However, an increasing number of Internet Service Providers and independent web browsers began offering competing Internet and web services. America Online had to acquiesce to allowing users to browse the entire web, and merged with Time Warner in an attempt to marry their Internet access channel with the media company’s content. However, the lure of the open web made it impossible to incentivize American Online’s users to consume Time Warner’s content, and this resulted in what has become a textbook case for business failure (Wu). It would be difficult to walk the web back from this open model today.
Additionally, Marjory Blumenthal and David Clark articulate the social implications of the end-to-end principle, an idea originally imagined in the context of network design. The end-to-end principle states that any specialized functionality should be confined to the applications at the ends of the network, and the telecommunications network should remain as “dumb pipes” which merely transport the information. This was meant to ensure that the network could remain general for all purposes from a technical perspective, but it also contributes to social factors which have enabled the Internet’s growth, such as net neutrality and the ability to establish new websites without external permission.
Various interests, such as the right to wiretap packets by governments and the desire for trustworthy communications by users, would seek to violate the end-to-end principle and modify the network towards their own ends. However, the authors assert that if the principle were to be severely compromised, many of the social and economic gains that the Internet has afforded would be stymied. Therefore social, economic, and legal means to address these specific interests and concerns would be preferable (Blumenthal & Clark). Any number of businesses, nonprofits, social movements, and social networking sites would be immensely upset should the Internet stray too far from what has allowed them to be successful.
Rebecca MacKinnon details how activists in events such as the Arab Spring and the Egyptian revolution relied on the open Internet to communicate and organize. Conversely, the Chinese government relies on a complex “great firewall” to block potentially offensive or provocative websites and ideas. Both cases point to the power of the Internet to alert users to information which powerful incumbent entities may not wish them to know. When these entities intercept or block communications, the activists will often employ circumvention tools to get around this filtering. Activists demanding change frequently include the free flow of information over the Internet as part of such change (MacKinnon).
In January 2012, the largest Internet protest to date was coordinated by members of popular websites such as Reddit and Wikipedia (“Wikipedia:SOPA initiative/Action”). This protest was against the Stop Online Piracy Act which, among other things, would have forced search engines to police their own content to ensure they were not linking to copyrighted material. This would have crippled the user-generated interaction and participation responsible for much of today’s social web (Pesner). Over 100,000 sites participated in the protest, and over 8 million calls were placed to congressional representatives within the span of 24 hours. This protest completely changed the course of the bill and prevented it from ever reaching a vote (“SOPA Strike”). Capitalizing on this momentum, many of those involved in that protest have formed the Internet Defense League, a coalition of Internet activists and concerned parties dedicated to stopping any new policies which may harm the free and open Internet in their tracks (“Internet Defense League”).
Taken together, these instances point to a new wave of vigilance over and awareness of Internet policies and principles which promote the free flow of information and societal innovation. There are many proposals for the WCIT championing measures that would result in Internet censorship or an increased top-down governance model in favor of nation-states. However, academic arguments, international commerce, social activism and the WCIT opinions of countries opposed to such measures will ultimately ensure the Internet’s openness and transparency in a large part of the world.
Blumenthal, Marjory S., and David D. Clark. “Rethinking the Design of the Internet: The End-to-End Arguments vs. the Brave New World.” ACM Transactions on Internet Technology. 1.1 (2001): 70-109. Web. 22 Oct. 2012.
Cerf, Vinton G. “Brief History of the Internet.” Brief History of the Internet – Internet Society | Internet Timeline. Internet Society. Web. 22 Oct 2012. <http://www.internetsociety.org/internet/internet-51/history-internet/brief-history-internet>.
MacKinnon, Rebecca. Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle For Internet Freedom. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2012. eBook.
Pesner, Jeremy. “An Analysis of Key Players in the Stop Online Piracy Act and PROTECT-IP Act.” gnovis. 13.1 (2012): Web. 21 Nov. 2012.
Wu, Tim. The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires. New York, NY: Vintage, 2011. eBook.
“SOPA Strike – Largest Online Blackout in History.” SOPA Strike. Fight for the Future, n.d. Web. 22 Oct 2012. <http://sopastrike.com>.
“The Internet Defense League – Protecting the Free Internet Since 2012.” Internet Defense League. Internet Defense League. Web. 22 Oct 2012. <http://internetdefenseleague.org>.
“Wikipedia:SOPA initiative/Action.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 16 01 2012. Web. 6 Oct 2012. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:SOPA_initiative/Action>.