The web is unflat

The World Wide Web has always been viewed as a place apart. The constraints of the physical world – territorial boundaries, national and local laws, even distance itself – don’t seem to apply to the virtual world, where everyone is every place (and no place) all the time. Back in 1996, John Perry Barlow issued his famous Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, proclaiming to the “Governments of the Industrial World” that “you are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.” Many other influential writers and thinkers have echoed Barlow’s idea, if not his grandiosity. In Thomas Friedman’s terms, the web is “flat” – and it’s one of the main forces flattening the real world, too.

In their excellent new book, Who Controls the Internet?, Jack Goldsmith and Tim Wu calmly dismantle this view of the web, revealing it to be a naive and wishful fiction. They show, through a series of engaging examples, why the Internet, far from existing outside national boundaries and laws, is increasingly being shaped by those boundaries and laws. Location, it turns out, matters a great deal on the Internet, for technical, political and cultural reasons. The virtual world, like its physical counterpart, has a spiky geopolitical topography. The web, in short, is unflat.

“The Internet,” Goldsmith and Wu write, “was supposed to be the test case for self-governing systems that could flourish without respect to geography and territorially based coercion. It was supposed to allow like-minded people to join communities and govern themselves without respect to geography, without regard to the top-down coercive structures of territorial governmental systems, and without the usual pathologies and corruptions that characterize territorial rule. This was Barlow’s vision, and it is a vision that retains a powerful hold on globalization and Internet theorists today.” But it’s a vision that is contradicted by the facts. “What we have seen, time and time again, is that physical coercion by government – the hallmark of a traditional legal system – remains far more important than anyone expected. This may sound crude and ugly and even depressing. Yet at a fundamental level, it’s the most important thing missing from most predictions of where globalization will lead, and the most significant gap in predictions about the future shape of the Internet.”

The history of eBay provides perhaps the best example of the divergence between Internet rhetoric and Internet reality. Friedman, the authors note, “describes eBay as a ‘self-governing nation-state’ constituted by its feedback system and its vigorous community norms.” The company’s CEO, Meg Whitman, has promoted this idealized view, with statements like this one: “People will say that ‘eBay restored my faith in humanity’ – contrary to the world where people are cheating and don’t give people the benefit of the doubt.”

But when Goldsmith and Wu look beneath eBay’s “self-governing facade,” they find “a far different story – a story of heavy reliance on the iron fist of coercive governmental power.” eBay maintains a large and aggressive internal security force – numbering almost a thousand – and this force works in close harmony with national law-enforcement agencies to police the eBay community. “Perpetually threatened by cheaters and fraudsters, eBay established an elaborate hand-in-glove relationship with the police and other governmental officials who can arrest, prosecute, incapacitate, and effectively deter these threats to its business model … Without this powerful hidden-hand help of governments in the places where it does business, eBay’s thriving ‘self-governing’ community could not survive.”

Why do so many Internet enthusiasts continue to promote the myth that the web exists apart from existing governmental and legal structures, despite the evidence? Goldsmith and Wu conclude it’s because

they are in the grip of a strange technological determinism that views the Internet as an unstoppable juggernaut that will overrun the old and outdated determinants of human organization. This leads them to say things like, “When you give people a new way to connect with other people, they will punch through any technical barrier, they will learn new languages – people are wired to want to connect to other people and they find it objectionable not to be able to do so.” That’s Marc Andreesen, Netscape’s founder. But as we have seen time and again in this book, it just isn’t so. People will not always, or even usually, transcend technical barriers in order to connect to other people. Just as often, if not more so, they will conform to the technical barriers, and the technical barriers themselves will reflect local government preference.

Some will read Who Controls the Internet? with relief, some with disappointment, others with disbelief. As the authors demonstrate, the impact of any new technology, even an extremely powerful one like the Internet, is filtered through existing geopolitical, economic, social, and cultural structures and norms. The technology may alter those structures and norms, but the structures and norms will alter the technology as well – until a new equilibrium emerges. Technology is powerful, but history is more powerful.

4 thoughts on “The web is unflat

  1. Graham Hill


    An old saw goes along the lines that “you should strive to control what you must, rather than what you can”.

    The Internet in general thrives on this principle, although, like markets everywhere, it does require appropriate, sometimes strong regulation, to ensure that it behaves in a way acceptable to its users.

    Governments and companies on the other hand thrive on the the opposite principle.

    Therein lies the nub of the matter.

    Graham Hill

    Independent Management Consultant

  2. Anthony Cowley

    I think Graham’s really nailed this issue. The hyperbole is a distraction; the online world is not free of all the concerns of the real world.

    The question crucial to any prediction of the future shape of the network then becomes whether or not control of what you must control will be a gateway drug. Various forms of lock-in via DRM look a lot like companies taking the opportunity (controlling what “must” be controlled) to make a land grab for things they might like to control at some point. Ebay needs to enforce certain regulations to keep the wheels turning, but as they gain those capabilities, their business sense will tell them they need to grow, expand, and generally take advantage of what they have by expanding into related areas. Of course, expansion can always benefit from planning which then leads straight back into controlling what you can…

    So who do you trust? I suppose you could trust the entity that controls only what it must and has no ambitions to ever grow. Not the most attractive business plan.

  3. Jevgenijs Cernihovics

    Nick, it depends. There are other facts. In countries, where the Internet is under governmental control, like China and Russia, the population of hackers is in much healthier condition, than in ‘free’ US or Germany. I consider this is not coincidence.

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