Who Controls the Internet?: Illusions of a Borderless WorldWho Controls the Internet?: Illusions of a Borderless World by Jack L. Goldsmith

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Written accessibly by a Harvard law professor and one from Columbia, this is the kind of “new history” that should probably, soon, become an essential part of our standard education about the world. It explains how the Internet came to be, why it failed as a truly borderless space, and how and why meatspace issues such as censorship, commerce, politics, and even warfare have begun to duplicate themselves in cyberspace.

Although published in 2006, this book is worth talking about now for two reasons. First, it’s interesting. I have been studying power and coercion for a while, and these ought to be issues relegated to the physical world, a.k.a., meatspace. The body is the ultimate place of enforcement. Without the threat of pain or imprisonment, there is no ultimate consequence to lend force to a demand. The Internet’s early popularity in the late 80s and early 90s was due in part to the recognition that cyberspace was different: there was no such thing as a painful consequence. When people organized themselves there, they did it anarchically, and the system worked because no one could aggregate disproportionate force.

Which brings me to the second reason why the book is important. The Internet’s history ought to be taught in classrooms: It has founders, inventors, competing systems of governance, and international drama. For instance, the Internet’s early anarchic structure failed when the U.S. government reasserted its rights to the root servers (citing that the Internet’s invention in the 60s was funded by a DARPA contract). The reason was money. Capitalism. Now is an opportune time to mention that I believe that history, as a course of study, exists to give us perspective on why we do what we do, and why our environment looks the way it does; as opposed to just acting on guesswork, assumption, and blind tradition. And given this premise, I will also voice a supposition that if this particular history is excluded from public school curricula, the cause is not mere oversight. As long as the Internet is a cornerstone of U.S. commerce, its historical, anarchic roots are a threat to the cultural assumption that unregulated capitalism is the only route to freedom.

As Dave Clark, one of the Internet’s founding minds, says: “We reject: kings, presidents, and voting. We believe in: rough consensus and running code.” And for over thirty years, this was the Internet’s credo. Without ideal anarchy, the Internet would not exist as it does today.

If you’re reading this review, I’m guessing you spend a fair chunk of time on the Internet. As long as the Internet is a tool that consumes a great deal of our lives, influences our understanding of the world, and can fail or be forcibly removed from our lives, it is worth understanding–therein lies the ability to judge fair and worthy use from trivial, stupid, or malicious use.

Note: I may change my rating to five stars after finishing the book, but I have not yet finished digesting the authors’ premise that the nation-state is in fact essential to the Internet’s stability. From a pragmatic standpoint (which is perhaps the only relevant one), they are likely correct. But my bias is toward idealism, and I would yet like to find some possibility for a stable, long-term form of Dave Clark’s manifesto on cyberspace.

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