Summer Reading: Who Controls the Internet?

Posted on May 31st, 2006 by

For my first book of summer, I fell into one of my usual genres: analysis of the relationship between information technology and social, political, and legal issues. As a result, I can warmly recommend Who Controls the Internet? Illusions of a Borderless World by Jack Goldsmith and Tim Wu (Oxford University Press, 2006). Anyone who cares how we govern the world we live in, now that the Internet is an important part of that world, needs to read this book and will enjoy doing so.

Goldsmith and Wu remind their readers that not long ago, the Internet was expected to knit the world together in such a way as to render borders meaningless and governments powerless. The reality has turned out quite differently: consumers have demanded an Internet experience that fits their geographic location and that benefits from the same governmental provision of public order as the rest of life. Moreover, governments (authoritarian ones as well as democratic ones) have found the means to control the Internet; Goldsmith and Wu lucidly explain how.

This book is not merely important and wise; it is also gripping and pleasurable to read. The collaboration between two authors has left no traces; the entire book is in a single, seamless voice: crisp yet fluent, humorous yet understated. Only rarely does one find a book about either technology or law that can truly be recommended to a general audience as a page turner; this book covers both topics, yet deserves such a recommendation. For those familiar with Lawrence Lessig‘s books, the style is somewhat similar, but less visibly self-conscious.

Like any book, this one has some errors; being a techno-geek, I predominantly noticed technical ones, such as the confusion of bandwidth with latency. None of these have any substantive impact on the reasoning, however. A more substantial weakness is that a provocative analogy is introduced almost out of the blue in the second-to-last paragraph of the book, without adequate development. Specifically, the current emergence of competing national models for Internet control is likened to the cold war. That is an interesting thought — too interesting to dispense with so rapidly as the book closes, without having given it more thorough treatment earlier. This opportunity for improvement in the second edition does not detract in any way from the points made in the remainder of the book.

Perhaps the most important thing to take away from the book is not the descriptive element (that governments can control the Internet and are doing so) but the normative one: that we should be glad (on the whole) for this government action. Set against the romantic ideals of frontier and emergent community, we deserve a reminder of the value of the rule of law. Goldsmith’s credentials as a spokesman for the rule of law and as a sober witness to the potential pitfalls of government power are beyond question: prior to his resignation, he was one of primary critics within the Bush administration of that administration’s policies on torture.

[Update 2007-05-16: Even at the time I wrote this review, I could and perhaps should have said more about Goldsmith’s credentials than just his involvement in the torture question. However, reading through James Comey’s testimony on 2007-05-15 before the Senate Judiciary Committee drove home to me that the question of warrantless interception of communications deserves special mention. This is an area where not merely government power is at issue, but specifically government power over the Internet. And on this topic as well, Goldsmith stood up for the rule of law even when this brought him into a very direct confrontation with the highest levels of the White House.]


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