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Monday, June 12, 2006

Who Controls the Internet?

I've just read Goldsmith & Wu's Who Controls the Internet?  (OUP 2006).  It was a very easy read and was quite informative.  Its central argument is that the internet must be "bordered" (both as an empirical and a normative matter) and that the "borderless world" some early enthusiasts foresaw in cyberspace was always illusory.  They make their points with a series of narratives and biographies from major events and figures in the history of internet development.   

Reading this book made me remember the ever-popular discussion about Rosa Brooks' "goodbye" to law reviews.  The book read like a long Atlantic Monthly article.  Although it had an underlying argument that structured the various chapters about "root authority," the internet and China, peer-to-peer networks and filesharing, Yahoo and censorship, and quasi-hagiography of Julian Dibbel, John Perry Barlow (of the Grateful Dead and EFF), Jon Postel, and Vint Cerf (The Economist has a nice article on Vint Cerf right now, BTW), there was something about the book that clearly placed it in the category of "popular" writing rather than "academic" writing.  Not that there is anything wrong with that, of course.  But the book seemed more a piece of well-done journalism than scholarship, OUP notwithstanding. 

If you are looking for a book that deeply engages many of the hard "cyberlaw" questions of our time (whether in IP, "net neutrality", 1st amendment in the digital age, etc.) and what others have said about them, this may not be the book for you.  And I would doubt that Wired readers will find the vignettes especially illuminating.  But if you are a novice to internet literature like myself, there is much to be learned in this book -- and it is a very painless and enjoyable way to do such learning.  If you also like academic debates, however, as I do, you may find yourself frustrated by Goldsmith & Wu's careful effort to keep the reading so entertaining.   

Posted by Ethan Leib on June 12, 2006 at 07:51 PM in Books | Permalink


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What can I say? I'm in the middle of Benkler's book now and it just seems obvious to me that Benkler's book appeals more to the academician in me -- while the Wu & Goldsmith book appeals to the New Yorker/Harper's reader in me. (Full disclosure: I don't actually subscribe to or read The Atlantic, so that may not have been the best suggestion in the post).

I don't think that is necessarily at odds with Orin's point -- since having "scholarly weight" is a pretty vague term. I wouldn't have trouble agreeing with Orin that the book had scholarly weight. But so do many popular magazine articles and books written by academics in fields of their expertise. Jeff Rosen sometimes has scholarly weight when he writes for magazines. Noah Feldman occassionally has scholarly weight in the New York Times. But there remains a difference between writings pitched at general audiences and writings pitched at experts.

I certainly wasn't meaning to suggest that you have to use a lot of big and complicated words (as Benkler does) to appeal to the academic in me. But you do have situate your work in a conversation in the academy, help us understand that conversation, and ultimately engage that conversation. (Unless you are starting a new one -- but no one thinks the Wu/Goldsmith book is the first thing written on the subject). The Wu/Goldsmith book seemed to be addressed to a much more general audience. Of course, as I said before, nothing wrong with that. But I do think my observation stands.

Posted by: Ethan Leib | Jun 29, 2006 2:56:08 PM

I'm with Orin as well on this.

Posted by: Tim Wu | Jun 29, 2006 1:28:35 PM

It's an enjoyable book. It's well-written. It lands some telling points. The reporting is good. Many of its claims are incontrovertibly, self-evidently true.

These thoughts aside, while it may be a good guide to some important events in the past decade of the Internet's history, it is not the best guide to the arguments between the cyber-exceptionalists (such as David Post) and the cyber-anti-exceptionalists (such as Goldsmith). Goldsmith and Wu really only engage with a subset of the arguments that cyberspace is different and that national governments either cannot regulate it or should not.

A few examples:

1) The book gives short shrift to darknets. Of course, these localized, special-purpose networks aren't ismorphic to "the Internet," so national control of the Internet isn't really undermined by the existence of them. And, of course, darknets are typically profoundly local, which fits in with the book's themes. But they are a major example of the way in which the Internet and related technologies reorient communicative power between governmental institutions and individuals. People can do illegal things in new ways. Even if the file-trading networks are stamped out, the existence of CD burners undermines national control of copying. (Against this shift, the Internet itself may be a counterforce, to the extent that it enables increased surveillance of what people do with information devices.)

2) The book gives even shorter shrift to the long-discussed idea that the Internet, by enabling affiliation by interest, will undermine the types of local identity-formation that sustain the national state. Indeed, it leaves out any discussion of the effect of the Internet on politics and social group dynamics. This issue is not beyond the book's scope in that if the social forces that cause people to assemble themselves into nation-states shift, there might not be nations to regulate the Internet.

3) The examples Goldsmith and Wu choose to illustrate their points involve some subtle dice-loading. It's unsurprising that eBay depends heavily on national law enforcement; the vast majority of things traded on eBay are tangible things. Online gambling--if it is truly to constitute "gambling"--must plug into the real-life financial system. The defamation cases involve defamation of a person with respect to real-life activities in real places. The authors could argue that online activities with a substantial meatspace compoennt are more important than "purely" online activites, but that argument would involve some fairly deep issues in how one counts and how one compares. The authors don't even acknowledge the issue.

4) I have argued, using the example of virtual world online "games," that online communities and real-life communities stand in a kind of reciprocity, and that online communities will increasingly have occasion to ask real-life governments to take actions that help the online communities maintain their distinctive values. This argument is different from Goldsmith and Wu's, in that I think it is possible, indeed likely that online communities will have values and commitments that are not simply groundable in the values and commitments of the real-life communities national governments represent. On this argument, terrestrial governments will play an ongoing role in governing the Internet but not wholly along the "walling" model of distinctive national Internets that Goldsmith and Wu imagine.

There's substantial truth to what they say, but the book could have been more generous to the full range of arguments of the other side. There are responses to many of those arguments, and my sense is that Who Controls the Internet? would have been a stronger book if it had included those complications.

Posted by: James Grimmelmann | Jun 13, 2006 12:05:06 AM

Huh. I'm with Orin on this. (Of course, I would be, wouldn't I?)

Posted by: Rosa Brooks | Jun 12, 2006 10:15:06 PM


I also enjoyed the book, although it didn't occur to me that the book wasn't scholarly. It's written for a general audience and uses clear and engaging prose, but I thought it had a lot of scholarly weight. (Full disclosure: I am currently writing a book review of it for the University of Chicago Law Review.)

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Jun 12, 2006 8:08:05 PM

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