Book Review: “Who Controls the Internet? Illusions of a Borderless World”

On: September 19, 2010
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About Caroline Goralczyk
I’m a student of the MA track in New Media and a journalist to be, currently living in Amsterdam and enjoying the city at its fullest. After studying as an exchange student at the UvA, I decided to come back and stay here for a little longer to pursue my Master’s degree. In Vienna I was working for a news magazine where I had the chance to gain first-hand experience on how important new media channels can be for professional journalists nowadays. Therefore, my main interest in New Media lies in its influence on journalism and political communication in regard to news making and publishing.


Imagine a place where there are no differences among people, everyone is living in a common space where the same language is spoken, borderless communication and free trade is frictionless and the freedom of speech is fully guaranteed. Yes, this could be a sort of paradise and yes, it could have also been the World Wide Web but no – it is neither of them. The book Who controls the Internet? Illusions of a Borderless World written in 2008 by Jack Goldsmith and Tim Wu, proves the utopia of the Internet as the new garden of Eden to be wrong by showing concrete examples of why national borders and governmental intervention matters.

In the beginning there was cyberspace – an exotic place where everyone could contribute, raise their voice, set up a website and share opinions with other users without facing restrictions or censorship from any superior power. What promised to be a parallel universe, a network that will challenge the nation-state authority and give power to the people, ended up in an illusion which the authors explain by raising concrete examples for criticizing this form of Internet utopianism: cybercrime, auction fraud, copyright infringement and governmental censorship as the extreme case of China has shown in recent decade, just to name a few. The main question they deal with is: Who controls the world wide web, our vehicle of communication and omnipresent companion? Who shapes it and why can we not speak of a borderless and self-governing world wide web without physical frontiers? Who controls the Internet? Illusions of a Borderless World shows that the cyberspace failed as the independent global community it was promised to be. Borders and real cultural differences amongst Internet users do indeed matter and a localization of the Internet into geographic clusters is taking place.

“We reject: kings, presidents, and voting. We believe in: rough consensus and running code.”

To keep it short and simple, that is what Internet idealists believed in by the end of the 1990s. With this powerful vision of a place where people lived under their own rules, the writings of net-thinkers John Perry Barlow and Julian Dibbell first influenced the whole understanding and development of the World Wide Web as an autonomous space. In 1998, John-Perry Barlow even penned “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” for all the individuals that come from cyberspace, the new home of mind. In the book we learn about the technical founders of the Internet, the government employees funded by the US Defense Department that were essential to this vision with creating a universal language for computers called the Internet protocol. In the debate about domain names and their increasing value the authors raise a very core question: Who should have the authority to give away these names and numbers? Who is in charge of controlling content and domains on the web? While the founders of the Internet considered themselves to be the acting authority over Internet matters, the US government claimed their ownership. Domain names can be worth billions of dollars nowadays – and that is were the battle started in the first place.

Illusions of a Borderless World: Better choose a country or a region!

What exactly prevents the net from being borderless? The most immediate and important difference reflected in the book by Jack Goldsmith and Tim Wu is the physical and virtual border of language. People in Argentina or France do not want English-language versions of their web products, they want something they can read and understand. Obviously, the most vital difference in cultural terms is language. In Who controls the Internet? Illusions of a Borderless World you can read up on how the Internet has failed to invent the new Esperanto and English did not become the language of the computer in the long run. By the time the book was written, already about two-thirds of Net users were nonnative English speakers. According to Internet statistics, by 2010 about one third of all Internet users is English speaking, closely followed by the 22,6 % of Chinese speaking Internet users that are almost building the second third of all Internet users.

Consumer behavior, currency and buyer-seller relations are just a few other features mentioned in the discussion why geography matters online and why companies ask their customers to “choose a country/region” through a link on their website. As the authors put it: “Australian speak English, but they don’t want a portal that gives them dinner menus, concert times, and traffic patterns in Miami.” Thus, businesses find it essential to match the information on the products they offer to the preferences of net users and potential buyers. The rising importance of geo-identification and locating net users in real space reflected the direct buyer-seller directions that were promised through the web. In the book, the authors use Amazon as an illustrative example of how this idea of free trade and direct relations failed completely as inefficient shipping methods and the lack of intermediary services forced the company to heavily invest in real-space distribution. And again it is shown that borders do matter.

In the discussion of making business online another important issue is discussed in the book: property rights and fraud. Once the web flourished and various websites were spreading out, questions of property and file-sharing were on the fore. Thus, the topic of digital piracy and online fraud such is an essential issue in Who controls the Internet? Illusions of a Borderless World. The rise of cross-border cybercrime, hacking and data theft on the one hand and the spread of pornography, gambling and Nazi-sites on the other was especially important for asking whether the Internet should be equally positioned with speech and who would be in charge of regulating this freedom of speech in order to prevent illegal and offending content. As eBay started facing major cases of fraud, the company started making contracts legal through the help of governmental coercion.

How free is the Internet? Let’s talk about China.

Because of linguistic and cultural differences with the West, and because of the government’s extraordinary system of monitoring and filtering, the Chinese Internet is becoming less and less like its Western counterparts – it is pulling away from the rest of the world.”

Rigorous political control on the one hand and a flourishing online participation and investments in the Internet on the other hand are core features that Goldman and Wu point out in China’s concept on managing the World Wide Web. Every website that the Chinese government considers to be a threat to the Chinese state is marked with an error message and the pop-up of the widely known “site not found”-screen. Thus, when sitting in front of a computer in China and typing in “Taiwan independence”, “gay sex” or “Tiananmen” one will experience first-hand what government surveillance and censorship in China is all about. Surrounded by the most elaborated information barrier, the Chinese government filters information through security “firewalls” around the entire country. As the authors point out, American commercial service providers such as Microsoft and Yahoo China are supporting this censorship in monitoring Yahoo e-mail accounts and censoring “My Space” messages and discussion forums. Information from certain addresses is then dropped and access to their content is immediately denied. The authors call it the most far-reaching filtering system in the world where bloggers have to register with the central government and computers in internet cafes are surveilled by watchdog cameras. In the book, a list is presented to show sites that are blocked for being a threat to the Chinese state. In the case of China, the Internet that what supposed to give hope in loosening government power on the people enhanced nationalism and censorship.

Who controls the Internet?

The authors state that problems on the Internet such as cross-bordered cybercrime and data theft require a global solution. Should there be a global law to govern this issue? With presenting a wide range of Internet governance possibilities, from the founding of the ISOC (Internet Society) to provide a self-governing Internet system independent from the US government, up to the institutionalization of a global law provided by the ICANN, the “Internet Corporation for Assigned Named and Numbers”. As Jack Goldsmith and Tim Wu state, with this organization “the United States wanted to ensure the stability of the Internet, to fend off the regulatory efforts of foreign governments and international organizations, and to maintain ultimate control.” Besides presenting how the European Union sets privacy standards on the Net for the entire world, this book provides its readers with a profound discussion on how the internet as a whole changes the way people and nations govern themselves. The central role of the government cannot merely be erased by the technological changes the Internet brought about. Even though the World Wide Web was supposed to be a test case for self-governing systems that would operate without geographical borders, this book proves the opposite. As the authors come to the point: “bordered Internet is valuable precisely because it permits people of different value systems to coexist on the same planet”.

Full Details:

Who controls the Internet? Illusions of a Borderless World.

By Jack Goldsmith and Tim Wu, 2008

Oxford University Press

ISBN 978-0-19-534064-8

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