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January 31, 2013

“Or the future of the Internet becomes something that is done to us.”
Posted by Patrick at 11:49 AM * 28 comments

Bruce Schneier, “Power and the Internet”:

All disruptive technologies upset traditional power balances, and the Internet is no exception. The standard story is that it empowers the powerless, but that’s only half the story. The Internet empowers everyone. Powerful institutions might be slow to make use of that new power, but since they are powerful, they can use it more effectively. Governments and corporations have woken up to the fact that not only can they use the Internet, they can control it for their interests. Unless we start deliberately debating the future we want to live in, and information technology in enabling that world, we will end up with an Internet that benefits existing power structures and not society in general.
This is the thing. Even in 2013, too many of us still believe, down deep, when we’re not forcing ourselves to think clearly, that there’s something magic about the internet that always works to the benefit of underdogs. That the fact that we now all carry more computing power in our pocket than was used in the spaceship that landed on the Moon means that somehow all these “disruptions” will amount to a net increase in the autonomy and power of individuals.

To a significant extent these delusions reflect the tremendous success of the narratives promulgated by modern libertarianism, the just-so stories of “free markets” and the “wisdom of crowds.” Even non-libertarians have spent a generation eating that stuff up. Faith in those ideas has led many of us into quietism and apathy. But in fact, in the words of the Kevin Maroney remark quoted on the colophon of Making Light, “a better future isn’t going to happen by itself.” While we dream our dreams of the wisdom of crowds, power works in silence.

You should read all of Bruce’s essay. But here’s the last paragraph anyway:

[I]f we’re not trying to understand how to shape the Internet so that its good effects outweigh the bad, powerful interests will do all the shaping. The Internet’s design isn’t fixed by natural laws. Its history is a fortuitous accident: an initial lack of commercial interests, governmental benign neglect, military requirements for survivability and resilience, and the natural inclination of computer engineers to build open systems that work simply and easily. This mix of forces that created yesterday’s Internet will not be trusted to create tomorrow’s. Battles over the future of the Internet are going on right now: in legislatures around the world, in international organizations like the International Telecommunications Union and the World Trade Organization, and in Internet standards bodies. The Internet is what we make it, and is constantly being recreated by organizations, companies, and countries with specific interests and agendas. Either we fight for a seat at the table, or the future of the Internet becomes something that is done to us.
Aaron Swartz knew this. We need to know it in our bones.
Comments on "Or the future of the Internet becomes something that is done to us.":
#1 ::: Henry Farrell ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2013, 12:29 PM:

I'm prepping for a graduate seminar on these issues this evening, and just re-read a Lessig piece from 2000, which for all of his sometime political naivete gets this more or less right.

#2 ::: Victoria ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2013, 12:58 PM:

All I can say at this point is "the more things change, the more they stay the same".

I've been lurking on line for a couple of decades now, but I only feel safe posting in a few places due to one very simple, but profound fact. The internet functions just like a small, relatively isolated town/community. All the things I love and hate about coming from a small, rural community are everywhere on the internet and in internet culture. I am aware of the pitfalls, too. Aaron Swartz ran afoul of small-town-isms on the internet, and it proved fatal for him. Which is why the internet scares the beejesus out of me at times. Posses and lynch mobs still exist. Their horses are metaphoric and their ropes may be virtual, but they are no less deadly.

As great grandchild of sod busters and a great great grandchild of the American Civil War and indentured servitude, I was raised on the stories of what my ancestors did to each other and had done to them while pursuing their dreams. I am also aware of how their dreams have influenced mine. All of the life lessons contained in those oral histories are mapping pretty much one-on-one to current internet culture.

We are, all of us, pioneers. While space may be the final frontier, this, the internet, is our current one.

#3 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2013, 01:07 PM:

I think one of the problems with libertarian thought is that it ignores the tendency of power to concentrate in other hands than one's own. It's all well and good when I've got power, but when someone else gets it they'll use it on me. There's a tendency to think if I just break up the current power structure, I'll end up gaining more power. While this may be true for some portion of the below-median-empowered, it's not going to be true for the majority of them.

This is part of what Bruce is pointing to in the essay (or at least the bits quoted here). Distributed power is beginning to concentrate, and this is likely to continue.

An interesting call to action, Patrick, but what actions do you recommend? And how will we know if the actions are working?

#4 ::: Rikibeth ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2013, 01:45 PM:

So, how does a non-techie fight for this, outside of signing petitions and writing to Congresscritters?

#5 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2013, 03:49 PM:

Victoria @2: Aaron Swartz ran afoul of small-town-isms on the internet, and it proved fatal for him.

What? Swartz ran afoul of a zealous federal prosecutor. I don’t see how that fits into any kind of “small town” narrative.

#6 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2013, 04:04 PM:

"The purpose of power is to remain in power."

#7 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2013, 04:20 PM:

And bureaucracies are part of their protective devices.

#8 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2013, 06:08 PM:

Many years ago, another Bruce (Sterling) did a funny/scary presentation, "Speaking for the Unspekable," at one of the early "what is this net stuff all about?" conferences.

(EDIT: Computers, Freedom, and Privacy)

bruces put on minimal disguises -- mirrorshades, a spook's dark glasses, a banana-republic general's peaked cap -- and in character talked about how useful the net was for violent and power-hungry bastards.

It seems utterly dead-on now, particularly how autocratic regimes use the tools of the net to crack down on dissent.

* * *
Me, I give the EFF $100 a year and let their pros do the work. I used to be try to keep up with the issues, but man, it isn't easy.

#9 ::: Rick York ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2013, 06:50 PM:

This is one of a myriad of demonstrations of how the coin of the realm can undermine the cause of freedom.

As M.Scheiner says, vigilance - constant and unremitting - is the only way to protect our first amendment rights. (And, even that might not work.)

Americans have clearly demonstrated their willingness to abandon their liberties to secure their "safety". Patriot Act anyone?

Franklin's warning has lost nothing over the last two centuries:

"They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."

#10 ::: Randolph ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2013, 06:55 PM:

Have you then abandoned libertarian ideology?

It was clear to me very early on that "The Internet empowers everyone." I applaud the wider recognition of this reality and can only hope it has come in time. One factor that perhaps weighs in our favor: I do not think that the freedom of the internet and the decency of its early administration was entirely "a fortuitous accident;" there was a lot of good will that made it possible, and much of that good will is still there, still waiting to be tapped.

Rikibeth, #4: "So, how does a non-techie fight for this, outside of signing petitions and writing to Congresscritters?" Be a good netizen. It matters, it matters a great deal. How we conduct ourselves at what is still the dawn of the wired age will make a difference in the future.

#11 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2013, 07:16 PM:

In essence, Patrick, it's the nerd's equivalent of the belief that everyone owning a gun will prevent tyranny. Just the way it did in tsarist Russia, the Soviet Union (a country with hunters and other private gun-owners), or Franco's Spain.

If I own a tool, and someone else owns a more powerful version of that tool (or can command many more tools than I) I am not as powerful as that other, nor am I their equal. No matter how much I delude myself into thinking so.

#12 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2013, 02:54 AM:

Randolph @10:
Have you then abandoned libertarian ideology?

Out of curiosity, whom are you addressing here?

As far as I am aware, Patrick's record as a hardcore libertarian is only slightly less well-established than his record as a prize-winning showjumper. And it's not like this is a libertarianism-default community.

(Or is this another case of Movable Type eating <sarcasm> tags again? I hate it when that happens.)

#13 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2013, 04:17 AM:

Google still identifies Making Light as “A liberal to libertarian weblog on issues of interest to a full-time science fiction editor and part-time musician in New York”, which seems awfully Patrick-centric. I think it’s the description line from the Open Directory description for Electrolite.

#14 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2013, 04:38 AM:

"Libertarian", as is "Anarchist", is a woefully imprecise label. But both seem to have a near-axiomatic assumption of power rising from the bottom up, which rarely seems to work.

"That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the Rich and Powerful to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."

#15 ::: guthrie ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2013, 06:02 AM:

Ah, maybe it's the old European definition of 'libertarian' which is to do more with left anarchism/ syndicalism and anti-capitalism, rather than pro-capitalist pro-market American libertarianism.

#16 ::: bryan ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2013, 06:29 AM:

"They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."

hmm, well the american public has given up some essential liberties to obtain a little temporary safety (or the illusion thereof) over the past decade or so, thus by this dicta it is reasonable to deprive said public of both liberty and safety. How nice for those who might wish to do so.

That was my roundabout way of arguing that probably everyone deserves both liberty and safety as a matter of morality - even if it might stick in our craw at times.

#17 ::: Randolph ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2013, 06:56 AM:

abi, #12: at least in the past, possibly a very long time ago, I remember Patrick giving some credit to some version of libertarianism. We never discussed it in depth, though, and I was wondering about the evolution of his beliefs.

Heck, I did that, back when. But that was 30 years ago.

#18 ::: Rikibeth ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2013, 07:43 AM:

Randolph @10: I like to think I've been being a good netizen (save a few early lapses in forwarding a cookie recipe with a bogus story attached) since 1987. As I've been using this same moniker continuously, and there don't seem to be any others, it's not too hard to check.

#19 ::: fidelio ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2013, 10:32 AM:

If we're considering apposite quotations, allow me to offer this one: "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others".

If you have not read Animal Farm, it might be a good idea to do so soon. Orwell aimed it at the Stalinist Soviet Union, but the value of the parable is not diminished just because the target now rests in the dustbin of history.

Also, the link to women in early radio reminds me: radio* was seen (and often was) a tool for freedom**; it was also quickly manipulated as a tool of capitalism and authoritarianism. Radio is not the internet, but the historic similarities and differences are worth consideration in the context of freedom and constraint.

*Your cell phone, smart or otherwise, is also a radio. People are often surprised when I mention that, although I suspect fewer in the
Fluorosphere are.

**Tweets from Port Said and Tahrir Square have a pedigreee that goes back through Radio B92 of Belgrade, through Budapest in 1956 and the occupied countries of World War II and the Spanish Civil War and every twentieth-century freedom movement that could put together a boradcasting set.

#20 ::: bryan ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2013, 03:35 PM:

> "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others".

Vincent: Bacon tastes gooood. Pork chops taste gooood.

#21 ::: Chrl Strss is self-disemvoweling ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2013, 04:41 PM:

On a related note, I'm just back from attending the launch and inaugural conference of CREATe, a cross-disciplinary multi-university academic research program on the future of copyright, regulation and new business models for the creative industries in the UK (into which I got roped in as some sort of creative-in-residence gig). I was one of about half a dozen creators ... out of around 100 attendees (and 150 or so at the launch). Most of them are academics, heavily drawing on the law faculties -- but a bunch were media industry heavies; we had the head of the main UK collections agency, the PRS, for example. And at the launch evening, the density of media industry lobbyists was just terrifying (although I suspect they were mostly there to try and rub shoulders with the Professional Plastic Political Persons of Power -- yes, the launch event rated speeches by a junior minister from Westminster and a heavy hitter from Holyrood).

There's going to be a lot of work to be done just to stop the CREATe forum turning into a rubber stamp for the snout-in-trough middlemen and their obsession with beating up on PIRATES!!!1!!ELEVENTY!!! (their preferred policy). And the scary bit is that this mostly academic research program will feed into evidence-based policy making by the UK government (insofar as it isn't nobbled by lobbyists representing the main moneyed interests) and quite possibly end up influencing IP policy at an EU level, and then at a WTO level.

As another delegate remarked, it was interesting how many people were focussing on the word "industry" any how few were focussing on the word "creative". Indeed, the same miasma of greed dressed up in sanctimonious market orthodoxy was rising from many of the participants in the enterprise that Patrick remarked on in this blog entry.

((PS: I'm using a pseudonym to make it marginally less likely that this will come up in the results for searches for CREATe and insert-my-name, because I don't want to be quite this scathing in public without marginal plausible deniability.))

#22 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2013, 05:25 PM:

I'm an optimist on this one, because I think the internet is like printing. It took 300 years, but the books won.

#23 ::: John A Arkansawyer ::: (view all by) ::: February 02, 2013, 02:34 AM:

SamChevre@22: Oddly enough, that's exactly why I'm cautiously pessimistic.

#24 ::: Jules ::: (view all by) ::: February 02, 2013, 06:18 AM:

"Chrl" @21 -- given google's ability to ignore spelling errors, I'm not convinced your approach to reducing searchability is likely to succeed, particularly as it almost certainly is (in some fashion) aware of your previous associations with this site.

#25 ::: Me, myself, and I ::: (view all by) ::: February 02, 2013, 09:20 AM:

Jules @24: you may be right, but: all I want is plausible deniability. It's not like I'm confessing to a crime ...

#26 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: February 02, 2013, 10:06 AM:


I think one of the unsexy forces that really drives the world is the kind of research that gets funded, and how it gets funded. Without vast funding from two countries bent on having the power to wipe each other off the map, we wouldn't have fusion bombs. The cold war led to funding research and development of all kinds of technology that pushed the world in a certain direction. Even as the technology spilled out into the public world, the things that got developed in well-funded labs vs garages were determined by what seemed useful during the cold war. For the last decade and more, anything with a homeland security angle has had an easier time getting funded. And DRM-related stuff has been able to get funding and interest largely because of the rich, politically-connected industry that needs it. At the same time, the dot com bubble, high-risk drug development by biotech startups, kickstarter, and the open-source movement are all ways that totally different stuff got developed. Existing big companies and industries tend to fund research that's a natural extension of what they're doing, but then sit on a lot of it because it conflicts with their current business. (Famously, IBM and Xerox and AT&T paid for the development of a huge number of wonderful ideas and technology that sat around unused till someone else ran with it.).

I am not sure how predictable the effects of these funding mechanisms are--you can fund Cold War stuff and get the internet, or fund cancer research and learn about retroviruses. But it has a huge impact on the world. Different funding decisions and mechanisms 40 years ago would make the world a radically different place.

#27 ::: Randolph ::: (view all by) ::: February 04, 2013, 09:56 AM:

danah boyd writes on public grief and Aaron Swartz.

"…where are geeks allowed to be vulnerable today?"

My comment, "There was space to move, not the white-hot attention of a thousand amateur paparazzi, and black-cold attention of a whole world of police and prosecutors."

#28 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: February 04, 2013, 05:05 PM:

Tom Whitmore @3: An interesting call to action, Patrick, but what actions do you recommend?

Well, for one, keeping an eagle eye on relevant legislation, for sure.

For another, I'd really like to see peer-to-peer routing become a practical reality.

(Meanwhile, I'm going to be giggling over abi @12's image of Patrick as a prize-winning showjumper for the rest of the day....)

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