Remembering: Conclusions

What happened? I’m not saying this with anger but with sadness. Internet was supposed to be a new borderless, governmentless, lawless territory…a new self-policing society, better than the previous one, where everyone is equal and everyone is powerful, a world of ideas. Is this an unattainable Utopia?


This series of posts is a bit sad because it only talks about governments’ success and the web’s defeat. It didn’t matter whether the key players were idealists, pragmatists or technocrats. They all resisted more or less energetically but were unable to avoid governments’ interference. Despite their initial good intentions:

  • Yahoo agreed to ban the auction of Nazi articles when a French judge threatened with fines.
  • eBay, behind its façade of a self-policing community, eBay worked hand in hand with the governments to persecute fraud.
  • Google agreed to filter the search results in China in order to compete on an equal basis with the other search engines.

O.K. These are battles, but not the war. There are also success stories, reasons to be proud of (blogs, wikipedia, etc.) and a lot to do. And yes: the governments are still far from occupying the central role they already have in regulating human behavior in the world. As you wish. But we should learn from what has happened. Otherwise, we will continue to dream wide awake without knowing what hit us. Where did they go wrong? What should have they done instead?

Governments cannot impose their Internet law!

All those entrepreneurs were victims of some of the web’s myths: “Governments cannot enter the Internet” and “Borders do not exist on the Internet.” The logical conclusion was that “Here we’re safe.” Unfortunately, those statements have to be nuanced and their importance diminished. This series of posts shows that governments do not need to enter the Internet in order to impose their law. All they have to do is threaten to use physical force on:

  • People, companies and equipment. Example: Yahoo in France.
  • Customers and suppliers. Example: to avoid the previous case, you can decentralize your company (Kazaa) but you cannot decentralize all the players that you do business with (e.g. the threat of lawsuits frightened off advertisers in Kazaa and potential FastTrack licensees) or even find out that they’re not appropriate (e.g. eBay with its customers).
  • Information intermediaries. Example: the Chinese government controls access to information, with Google’s collaboration.
  • Transmission intermediaries. The governments cannot enter but they can control the entry gate and service quality.
  • Financial intermediaries. A few years ago, the US threatened Visa, MasterCard and PayPal to stop processing online payments of tax-free cigarettes and online casinos. Most of those businesses tanked. It did not matter that their headquarters were outside US territory.

Web sayings

This is a serious subject and leads me to a wider point: a number of web “sayings” have been used in recent years (information wants to be free, code is law, cyberspace blurs borders and renders the nation-state obsolete, on the Internet nobody knows you’re a dog, the world is flat, etc.). They have been repeated so many times that they have become popular, trivial and acquired a “wisdom” status. A false wisdom which creates victims and fails to explain the web’s current reality. They should be reexamined and, if necessary, reworded or abandoned. Otherwise, we run the risk of remaining in the comfort zones, in the blogosphere’s echolalia, which makes us feel comfortable, important and even immune. That is to say, a ghetto, not a liberating tool.

Think for yourself. Don’t be a victim of this enormous echo chamber or repeat everything like a parrot. Take a more critical position. If you repeat those sayings because it’s cool and you know your audience will applaud, you’re doing no favors to the web. Use your brains. Poetry is good but change is better.

Rectify to win

The stories described in “Remembering” dismantle the myth created 10 years ago by John Perry Barlow, founder of the EFF:

Governments of the world [...] you have no sovereignty where we gather [...] (nor) do you possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear.

Barlow clearly captured the beauty of the moment, the excitement of the web’s potential, but he was wrong: governments impose their law de facto on the Internet and there are reasons to fear that their actions jeopardize the source of innovation, which is what the web has become. Instead of taking refuge in “mythical quotes” and living on his earned status, he has continued to fight, reformulating the strategy to defend the Internet. In 2001, after the defeat of Napster, he participated in a conference with Lawrence Lessig where he acknowledged that:

I originally thought Larry was the enemy, because he wanted to introduce law into cyberspace. Then I came around to the idea that laws were the only way to protect us from the lawyers.

I wish we all saw less dogma and more ideas to question.

By David Blanco
Saved in: Internet | 1 comment » | 3 October 2006

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