Chapter 13: The Taming of the Net

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Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather. . . . I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us.

-John Perry Barlow, 1996

Sometime during the early 1990s, the Internet acquired its status as a reference point for public discourse about utopia. Cyberspace was a new frontier that seemed to the highly educated and articulate people who first colonized it like a tabula rasa onto which they could project their own dreams and theories about how society should function. John Perry Barlow's 'Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,' was a bold expression of this attitude, written, appropriately enough, by the former lyricist for the Grateful Dead.

Libertarians looked at the Internet and rejoiced, because they saw in it a world without the state, an environment without taxation, censorship, or regulation. The Internet was the epitome of Jeffersonian decentralization. Computer technologists rejoiced because the Internet was free of formality and politics; it was the antithesis of the regulated and monopolistic telecommunication regime. Standards were made in informal, open working groups; decisions were based on consensus; the process of standards setting was governed by a hierarchy of respected elders who had achieved their position through technical wizardry. Many on the democratic left were happy too, seeing in the Internet an arena of open communication, communitarianism, and equality. The Internet was free of the impediments of property rights, advertisements, and commerce. It was simultaneously a democratic agora, a gigantic free library, and a vigorous new space for public interaction.

Despite their diverse viewpoints, all of these groups saw the Internet as a kind of Garden of Eden exempt from the corruption of worldly institutions. Even a fairly conservative U.S. Supreme Court showed a special solicitude for the new medium in its decision unanimously striking down the Communications Decency Act in 1997. The attempt by the U.S. Congress to censor the Net served as the galvanizing force for cyberspace utopians of all ideological stripes in their confrontation with established institutions and norms.

Now, of course, the world is starting to close in on cyberspace. Formal organization, property rights and commerce, regulation and geopolitics are reasserting themselves systematically. Of course, the institutionalization of the Internet is taking place on a variety of fronts. Debates over taxation of e-commerce, regulation of content, and technical standardization are underway in a variety of national and international forums. But the administration of the Internet's name and address root was the first to produce a global solution.

Institutions affect both economic efficiency and equity. They provide the channels through which the fluid of everyday activity takes the path of least resistance. Institutional regimes, particularly at the international level, are not based on ideas or efficiency but on political bargains over the distribution of wealth. Institutional structures are not necessarily selfcorrecting; they are costly to establish and, once established, very costly to change. Thus, the small steps of the historical process recounted here matter greatly; cumulatively, they have led down a path that will take years to alter. The ICANN-WIPO-Commerce Department regime may yet prove to be the most significant institutional innovation produced by the Internet's rise.

Barlow's declaration hasn't aged well. His belief in the special status of cyberspace, however, was not entirely naive. The internetworking of computers did in fact break free of established institutional constraints. The whiff of possibility and autonomy was not an illusion. Many of the Internet's benefits and innovations occurred precisely because it had slipped out of the grasp of the old rules and organizations.

There is a life cycle in the evolution of technical systems. Systems that create new resources and new arenas of economic and social activity can escape institutional regimes and create moments of disequilibrating freedom and social innovation. But eventually a new equilibrium is established. The absolute freedom of a global common pool becomes too costly to maintain. It requires us to solve problems de novo constantly. It is cheaper to classify problems into a few distinct types and establish regular norms and procedures for handling them. The development of new forms of social organization is curbed in order to solve the problems posed by the initial spurt of innovative growth.

Despite its stated rationale, the formation of ICANN utterly failed to preserve the 'self-governing' or 'self-regulatory' character of the Internet. On the contrary, it is part of the process by which established economic players and arrangements assimilate internetworking. Both the Internet and the old order are changed in the process, of course-the influence is not entirely one way. What is surprising about the institutionalization of the Internet's name and address spaces, however, is the stark contrast between the new regime and the old spirit of the Internet. ICANN's practices and policies are rooted in some of the most conservative and constraining aspects of the old order: the International Telecommunication Union and its notion that the name and address spaces are 'public resources' subject to centralized regulation; concepts of 'public trusteeship' taken from broadcast and utility regulation; deference to copyright and trademark interests, long known for their hostility to new media; the engineer's propensity to favor tightly controlled, 'rational' central planning over messy commercial, competitive, and heterogeneous systems. On the whole, it is a conservative, corporatist regime founded on artificial scarcity and regulatory control. Anyone interested in retaining or reinvigorating the revolutionary character of the Internet will be obliged to find ways to bypass it.

More likely, institutionalization under ICANN means that the Internet's role as a site of radical business and technology innovation, and its status as a revolutionary force that disrupts existing social and regulatory regimes, is coming to an end. Its status as an entropic source of change in the social and political order is winding down. That means that its capacity for continued technical evolution is being restricted as well. There are simply too many vested interests now, and too many points of control for them to exert leverage over the industry.

But no doubt there are other technologies and systems hatching somewhere, ready to take the world by surprise.

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Ruling the Root(c) Internet Governance and the Taming of Cyberspace
Ruling the Root: Internet Governance and the Taming of Cyberspace
ISBN: 0262134128
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2006
Pages: 110

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