Introduction | rheacock | December 09, 2013

H2O

Introduction

Rob Faris & Rebekah Heacock

Each day, the choices and policies that shape the contours and impact of the Internet become more consequential. An increasing proportion of economic, social, political, and cultural events and struggles are played out in the digital realm, either exclusively in virtual form or in conjunction with offline events. The power dynamics of the Internet are becoming increasingly indistinguishable and inseparable from the wider world.

In digital spaces, we see governments continue to grapple with different approaches to the regulation of digital activity. Some governments aspire to limit the impact of regulation on innovation and protected speech while others resolutely curtail freedom of speech and assembly. We see companies seek to attract and manage customer bases while balancing the contradictory demands of regulators and users. Meanwhile, individuals and civil society groups leverage the affordances of digital technologies to shape political and social outcomes—in some cases with the support and protection of governments and companies, and in others working around the constraints governments and companies impose upon them.

One of the key themes that emerge from the collection of essays in this publication is the contest to redefine power relationships in digital spaces among governments, companies, and civil society, and the very different ways in which this struggle is manifest in different societies and countries around the world. The power of civil society is strengthened through higher levels of connectivity, unfettered access to knowledge, freedom of expression, and freedom to engage in collective action facilitated by digital tools: in short, the creation of social capital online. For governments, the quest for power tends to focus on establishing the legal means and mechanisms to uphold laws in the digital arena but also extends to encouraging and sustaining an environment that is conducive to innovation and collaboration. The calculus for companies is on one hand very straight-forward—being able to engage in profitable commercial activity—and on the other hand highly complex, as they occupy the difficult space between the conflicting demands of governments and citizens.

A legacy of prior architectural and policy choices frame and constrain the current state of play. Lessig’s framework of four forces that interact to regulate Internet activity—architecture, markets, laws, and social norms—is as apt today as it was when published fifteen years ago, perhaps several generations of digital time. Code is still law, though expressed in many unforeseen ways by the platforms and applications that attract so much of our digital transactions. Market activity has rapidly seized opportunities that have arisen, and the architecture of the Internet, encompassing both physical and software, strongly follows the contours shaped by market forces. Social norms continue to evolve in fits and starts, via compromises and conflicts. And formal legal structures, moving at the measured speed of their governmental deliberation and process—although seen by many as advancing too quickly and too aggressively—seek to regain jurisdiction in areas of real and perceived lost sovereignty. The laws that have acted to protect expression—for example, limits on intermediary liability—have had a profound impact. Others that seek to reign in expression have not met the same success, in some cases far exceeding the targets of regulation while often failing to address the ills for which they were intended. Still others have failed in the presence of technological end runs and popular opposition. Of the power voids that characterized the early day of the Internet, fewer and fewer remain.

While the Internet was once seen as a separate realm populated by independent-minded pioneers that would collectively create the rules and norms of this new landscape, the current and future struggles over control of the Internet are now dominated by large players, primarily governments and large companies. For individuals, this means navigating a tricky and at times treacherous online landscape. In many cases, governments act in their interests, helping to provide the connectivity and skills to take advantage of digital opportunities, protecting civil liberties while deterring malicious actors. In other cases, governments act as obstacles, via inappropriate regulations, repression, and invasive surveillance. Similarly, companies that provide the infrastructure, services, and applications that facilitate digital expression and community formation are alternately seen as allies and adversaries.

In many respects, the distributed and decentralized vision of the Internet has persisted, for example, in the ways that individuals can offer opinions and form multiple interrelated networks of friends and colleagues, and in the cooperative and collaborative forms of cultural production that have emerged. In other important ways, the Internet is highly centralized and hierarchical. A modest number of Internet service providers act as gateways to the Internet for a large majority of people. A handful of companies—Baidu, Google, Sina, Facebook, Twitter and others—dominate search, social media, and social networking online. These overlapping and contradictory structural features mirror the ongoing struggle for control over the limits to online speech and access to personal information.

None of this goes unwatched. The promise and scourge of the Internet is that it is highly reflective, and with each passing day the Internet offers a clearer window into society. Those with the means to capture the digital traces and reassemble the constituent parts can uncover more and more of the relationships, ideas, and sentiments of those that inhabit virtual spaces. Arguably, the individual and collective information offered through digital communication reflects an unparalleled view of the underlying world—one that is more accurate and more representative than any of the alternatives of the past and one that is slowly converging on a comprehensive picture of the communities and institutions that vie for power and influence in societies across the globe. In places, this convergence of online and offline arenas is readily apparent. For much of the world, it has scarcely begun.

Although still fragmented and fractured, the emergence of this detailed, information-rich view of the world represents both the power and the bane of digital expression. This granular view of personal thoughts and activities is in many ways too intimate. The distinction between public and private has blurred in digital spaces to the detriment of personal privacy and the prior negotiated boundaries between private communication and government access to personal data. This profusion of personal data has many benefits that are more evident by the day, spurring research and innovation in health, education, industry, transportation, and planning, along with innumerable economic applications. The often-repeated mantra appears to be generally true: digital tools can be a powerful means for broader swaths of society to influence the public agenda and for civil society interest groups to mobilize like-minded people for social and political causes.

None of this suggests that there are any inevitable outcomes, only that any dreams of a cyberspace defined primarily by autonomous individuals are receding into the distance. The Internet is at the same time both freeing and feudal. The essays collected here highlight the several and distinct fault lines that mark the ongoing policy debates and power struggles.

Expanding physical infrastructure, penetration and use

Internet penetration—the percentage of people using the Internet—worldwide has been steadily rising, and reached 41.8 percent of the global population, or around 2.9 billion people, last year. Major obstacles to access, including cost and lack of infrastructure, remain in many parts of the world. Monthly wireline broadband subscription charges in low income countries are nearly three times as expensive as in high income countries; penetration rates in high income countries are nearly five times as high as those in low income countries.1 These divides are apparent regionally as well: Sub-Saharan Africa’s penetration rate is less than one third that of either Latin America or the Middle East and North Africa, and less than one seventh that of North America.

Mobile subscriptions continue to see rapid growth, with the average global mobile subscription rate crossing the 100 percent line for the first time in 2012. Growth is particularly rapid in low income countries, with the mobile subscription rate rising by 14 percent from 2011-2012, to an average of 70 percent (compared to an Internet penetration rate of just 16 percent). In the vast areas of the world where mobile represents the sole means of connectivity, this leapfrogging may be a mixed bag: mobile connectivity is better than nothing, but may be an inferior substitute for high-speed wireline broadband access.

In the past year, a number of major industry players, including Google (through Project Loon) and Facebook (partnering with a range of mobile technology companies through Internet.org), have announced initiatives to increase Internet access in underserved areas. These projects join a number of other efforts in exploring the possibilities of new technologies such as wireless broadband, coupled with policies aimed at promoting competition and innovation in the space, to bring affordable, quality Internet access to the remaining three-fifths of the world’s population.

Trends and points of contention

A number of trends and themes arise in the essays compiled here that shape the evolving balance and distribution of power among governments, companies, and civil society as they vie for influence and control. At the core are questions about who can contribute, in what manner, and who has access to what information.

The trends we describe here are not sudden shifts but the cumulative result of changes that have been underway for many years, each of which has been reinforced over the past year. These issues are all intimately related to one another and reappear frequently in the essays included in this publication.

We are forced to recognize that state surveillance touches all aspects of Internet life, affecting not only the ability of states to assert control in digital spaces but also security, privacy, and the formation of functional civil society groups.

The curtain is raised on the surveillance state

It is possible that 2013 will be seen as an inflection point in the history of Internet as citizens, companies, and governments consider the ramifications and responses to digital surveillance. Surveillance colors all aspects of digital activity: not just privacy and law enforcement, but freedom of expression, civil society activity, the structure of markets, future infrastructure investments, and much more.

The biggest story in the digital world over the past year has been the pulling back of the curtain showing the scale and depth of online surveillance carried out by the United States National Security Agency (NSA). Large scale digital surveillance is not new. What is new is the widespread recognition of its existence and its ability to reach into digital corners thought to be out of reach. The large arsenal of hacking tools and apparent broad targeting of tracking activities—tapping into trans-oceanic cables, conducting social network analysis on American citizens, indiscriminate collection of billions of phone records, tampering with encryption standards, and the list goes on—has brought this issue to the forefront of digital security and civil liberties debates around the world.

The NSA may represent the broadest and most technologically advanced surveillance operation in the world, but the US government is not alone in collecting as much information as it is able. A myriad of questions have been raised about the role of surveillance in democratic societies, including the appropriate thresholds that should be in place for collecting and processing private communications, the balance between security and civil liberties, issues of oversight and accountability related to secret programs, the ethics and practical implications of spying on the rest of the world, and the legal status and treatment of leakers. Surveillance practices highlight not only questions about the rights of citizens but also the powerful and uneasy relationship between governments and private companies.

While still far from a popular movement, the calls for reconsidering the social contract that governs the scope and conditions under which government surveillance takes place both domestically and internationally have increased many fold in the past year, and have the potential to alter the future digital landscape. The debate over individual use of encryption and the right to anonymous speech online is likely to grow.

It will take time to sort out the possible detrimental effects this revelation will have on the global Internet. The responses to this disclosure, which have come from all corners of the globe, may act to reshape the Internet and influence policy decisions for many years to come. A strong reaction came from Brazil, where President Dilma Rousseff announced that Brazil will seek ways to avoid NSA surveillance and reduce its reliance on US-based platforms. Increasing the proportion of traffic to domestically hosted servers and services would bring significant but uncertain implications for Internet users around the world. If successful, a likely outcome would be reduced surveillance by the NSA accompanied by greater access for local governments to user data. This may represent a launching point for increasing Balkanization of the Internet. Other reactions are bound to follow.

Mounting concerns over online privacy

Interest and concern over privacy online continues to attract more attention, though still considerably less than many observers believe is warranted. The revelations associated with the Snowden leaks add to a long list of concerns related to data collection and use by technology companies. There is broad consensus that the traditional modes of privacy protections—informed consent prior to collecting information, restrictions on use and sharing, and stripping identifying information from data releases—are broken, perhaps irreparably so. So far, solutions tailored to the digital age are elusive. Privacy encapsulates multiple complex questions, and individuals differ markedly in how they conceptualize and approach these issues. Yet the notion that people simply don’t care is losing credibility.

Cybersecurity questions persist

As the stories of malicious cyberattacks against individuals, companies, and governments continue to mount, attention to Internet security now features prominently in public policy discussions. It is difficult, however, to ascertain whether the risks of conducting business and personal affairs are actually any worse they were than five or ten years ago.

At one level, cybersecurity is almost inseparable from issues of online privacy and surveillance as the lines between watching, collecting, and intrusion into private networks are thin. The mechanisms and tools to protect against cyberattacks overlap in large part with those that are used to maintain privacy and thwart unwanted surveillance. In policy discussions, however, cybersecurity is generally framed in starkly different terms, commonly evoking the language of foreign threats and national interest. A persistent fear among many is that the cure will be worse than the disease: that reactions to cybersecurity will harm innovation and curtail civil liberties online. Along with questions around surveillance and privacy, the issue of cybersecurity highlights the growing challenges for individuals and small entities operating independently on the Internet today.

Big platforms entrenched

The prominent role of a small number of large companies in the digital life of a majority of the world’s Internet users is by no means a new phenomenon. It is, however, looking more and more like a permanent fixture of the digital world. Without question, the prominence of big platforms shapes the efficacy of regulatory strategies and the innovative and collaborative potential of cyberspace. It is also inextricably linked to issues of surveillance, privacy, security, and freedom of expression, among others.

Through the cumulative decisions of millions of users and the pull of network effects, a handful of platforms have emerged as both the hosts of a vast amount of private sensitive information and as digital public squares. In the process, and not entirely by choice, they have become extraordinary powerful players in setting regulatory policy online. When governments seek to selectively block content on social media or look for information on users, they turn to Facebook, Google, and Twitter. And when activists campaign for protecting civil liberties online, they focus much of their attention on the same parties.

Large social media companies are now key arbiters of acceptable speech. They make decisions that determine when and how copyright disputes are handled in cyberspace and are asked to act as watchdogs for human rights and civil liberties online. We are just beginning to learn how much discretion large companies may have in the determining the effectiveness of government surveillance, whether they readily comply with requests for information or push back against such requests. Although not by design, a growing array of important public interests is precariously perched upon a backbone of private infrastructure and market-based decisions.

The evolution of network structure in social media suggests that power law distributions could be a natural feature of this landscape, with large social media platforms at the top of the distribution. But it is not obvious that the same major players will continue to occupy the most prominent positions and there are signs that users are seeking out smaller platforms, which suggests that there may be hope still for consumer responses playing a productive role in addressing privacy and security issues.

Regulating digital spaces is not getting any easier

Although different in scale, the core regulatory challenges of the Internet have changed little over the past two decades. If anything, regulating digital speech and information flows is getting more difficult. Digital expression that traverses international boundaries, anonymous speech, the difficulty in attribution, and the massive scale of social media are among the facets that complicate law making in cyberspace. Policymakers around the world continue to draft laws to govern this hard-to-govern medium, with mixed results. Several recent legislative initiatives reveal governments that are intent on reining in Internet speech to more closely align with traditionally stronger offline media regulations: for example, the rumor law in China, Decree 72 in Vietnam, and media licensing requirements in Jordan and Singapore.

As formal regulatory structures are understandably slow to adapt, private ordering has filled this regulatory niche. Standards developed by private platforms to govern activity on their sites have taken on the form of law, guiding and constraining user behavior. At times these standards are in step with the national laws of their users, but more often they are not. When Bing filters the search results for its Arabic language users, or YouTube suspends a user account for the presence of violent material, these privately mediated arrangements play critical regulatory roles, with many of these decisions taking place outside of formal public oversight.

The networked public sphere comes of age (in places)

The list of countries that have been affected by digitally mediated civic action continues to grow. In the past year, protest movements in Turkey and Brazil have occupied headlines. Although many descriptions of “Twitter and Facebook revolutions” over the past several years have been overblown—suggesting agency to technology tools or proclaiming that technology has decisively changed the pitch of the field in favor of democracy—the role of digital tools in facilitating social mobilization is undeniable.

The roots of these actions can be seen in the opinions and political debates online and in the networks that have formed around ideas and causes. The digital activism and organizing in opposition to new copyright legislation in the United States (SOPA-PIPA), which subsequently spread to Europe to oppose ACTA, was a watershed moment in online organizing. While many may mark these events as the time when the networked public sphere came of age, these examples are still outliers. Across the majority of issues and locations, the networked public sphere remains dormant.

Fighting for alternatives and autonomy

Amid the large companies and governments jostling to mold the Internet in their own interests, a growing number of individuals and smaller entities are fighting to preserve an Internet that more closely resembles the idealized version of a previous generation: an Internet where individuals can act autonomously, exchange ideas freely without fear of government censorship or surveillance, and operate independently of corporate interests. Much of this work is carried out by technologists that develop alternative tools and platforms and activists that seek to stave off legal and political threats to these communities. Frequent allies are found among open government advocates, whistleblowers, and hacktivist groups, and considerable support and sympathy comes from governments and companies. The surveillance revelations of the past year have added much energy and motivation for a strong civil society response to regain lost ground while highlighting the daunting obstacles ahead.

NOTES

  1. Fixed (wired) monthly broadband subscription charge in 2011 (most recent available data), as reported by the ITU in USD: 98.49 in low and low middle income countries, 35.32 in high income countries (OECD and non-OECD combined). Internet users per 100 people in 2012, as reported by the ITU: 15.9 percent for low and low middle income countries; 74.2 percent for high income countries (OECD and non-OECD combined).
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December 10, 2013

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