What a great question. It’s the subject of a new book out Who Controls the Internet?: Illusions of a Borderless World (Jack Goldsmith, Tim Wu). Haven’t bought it yet, but is definitely there on my reading list -pushing to the top even.
Why is this such an important question? I’ve been thinking about it for a while now and really, if someone was to one day just “switch us off” – we’d be in a world catastrophe the same way that we’d be in a world catastrophe as if someone “switched off the lights” (ala energy crisis). Boing Boing has a good article on why we need alternative sources of bandwidth just like we need alternative sources of fuel.
Some people may disagree with me here but if you think about it, electricity (history link), only distributed to the masses a short while ago (just over 100 years or so – not a long time in our world’s history! ), has made the world what it is today. I’m writing about it right now in my thesis. A power outage of one hundredths of a second can cause millions of dollars and invaluable data loss for one organization. So, along with food, shelter, water, air… it seems like if we’re going to live in this world as know it, electricity is added to the list of basic human needs. We’d still be ‘alive’ – but living in absolute chaos.
But why the net?
Internet’ history – to the masses since the 1990s!! Insane how much the world has changed before my eyes in my 23 years of existence.
If someone was to ‘shut us off’ – what would happen? I think that it’d be in some ways, very alike to the above: absolute chaos. Organizations’ productivity would halt and all of the financial markets etc.- the drivers of the economy would be in a crisis that overflow to every single person in this world – whether connected or not, will be affected – likely for the worst – unless you live in isolation and are completely self-sufficient.
But, my biggest concern – communication and democracy.
Perhaps this is all the utopia/dystopia books (Brave New World, Oryx and Crake, 1984, Handmaid’s Tale etc.) that I’ve read with shivers down my spine… What do they all have in common? To change a world for the better or the worse, you have to shut people up – destroy the language in which they communicate , destroy the networks.
If we can’t talk to each other, if we can’t get information, we’re invariably screwed.
Think about it: the scariest places in the world often have the tightest controls on communication flow. BBC isn’t allowed in Zimbabwe, Burma – cited as the “nuclear bomb of internet repression”, North Korea is “an internet black hole.” And China, lest we forget China – censors its internet so much that it’s no wonder why some Chinese don’t understand the human rights issues there – reporters are detained and sometimes killed and now, with the Olympics coming up, the world is in a fury because China just backed out on its deal to provide “complete freedom to report” – and is now allowing “sufficient access”. And umm.. well, quite often, American media censorship (do your own research on the topic – always good to question your sources!)
Let’s face it, when we’re muzzled, we’re in trouble.
Sure, we can ‘live’ without the internet, but in this globalized world – we need global communication and that’s the internet.
So, WHO controls the internet and who OWNS the internet? I don’t know the answer (yet), but I do know that WE CAN’T take the net for granted and NOT KNOW the answer to this elusive question.