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The Myth of a Free Internet

A 2001 essay warned ­advocates of free expression not to delude themselves into thinking the Internet can never be controlled.
April 23, 2014

Excerpted from “Taming the Web,” by Charles C. Mann, first published in the September 2001 issue of Technology Review.

To the generations nurtured on 1984, Cointel­pro, and The Matrix, the image of a global free-thought zone where people will always be able to say and do what they like has obvious emotional appeal. Little wonder that the notion of the Net’s inherent uncontrollability has migrated to the mainstream media from the cyberpunk novels and technoanarchist screeds where it was first articulated in the late 1980s. A leitmotif in the discussion of the Napster case, for example, was the claim that it was futile for the recording industry to sue the file-swapping company because an even more troublesome file-swapping system would inevitably emerge.

Nonetheless, the claim that the Internet is ungovernable by its nature is more of a hope than a fact.

Insisting that digital technology is ineluctably beyond the reach of authority [is] inadvertently making it far more likely that the rules of operation of the Internet will be established not through the messy but open processes of democracy but by private negotiations among large corporations.

We are in the beginning stages of the transfer of most of society’s functions—working, socializing, shopping, acting politically—from what Internet denizens jokingly call “meatspace” into the virtual domain. In the real world, these functions are wrapped in a thicket of regulations and cultural norms that are, for the most part, accepted. Some free-speech absolutists dislike libel laws, but it is generally believed that the chilling effect on discourse they exert is balanced by their ability to punish gratuitous false attacks on private individuals. Regulations on the Net need not be any more obnoxious.

The risk, of course, is overreaching—of using law and technology to make the Internet a locus of near absolute control, rather than near absolute freedom. Paradoxically, the myth of unfettered online liberty may help bring this undesirable prospect closer to reality. “Governments are going to set down rules,” says [Internet-­law specialist Justin] Hughes, “and if you spend all your time fighting the existence of rules you won’t have much chance to make sure the rules are good ones.”

In other words, hackers may be their own worst enemies. By claiming that the Net is uncontrollable, they are absenting themselves from the process of creating the system that will control it. Having given up any attempt to set the rules, they are allowing the rules to be set for them. Corporations are by no means intrinsically malign, but it is folly to think that their interests will always dovetail with those of the public. The best way to counterbalance Big Money’s efforts to shape the Net is through the untidy process of democratic governance—the exact process rejected by those who place their faith in the ability of anonymous hackers to circumvent controls. An important step toward creating the kind of online future we want is to abandon the persistent myth that information wants to be free.”

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