How the Internet changes power relationships

Bruce Schneier's essay "Power and the Internet" is a thoughtful look at the way that the Internet causes shifts in power relationships. Here's the crux of the thing, in my opinion:

It's not all one-sided. The masses can occasionally organize around a specific issue -- SOPA/PIPA, the Arab Spring, and so on -- and can block some actions by the powerful. But it doesn't last. The unorganized go back to being unorganized, and powerful interests take back the reins.

Debates over the future of the Internet are morally and politically complex. How do we balance personal privacy against what law enforcement needs to prevent copyright violations? Or child pornography? Is it acceptable to be judged by invisible computer algorithms when being served search results? When being served news articles? When being selected for additional scrutiny by airport security? Do we have a right to correct data about us? To delete it? Do we want computer systems that forget things after some number of years? These are complicated issues that require meaningful debate, international cooperation, and iterative solutions. Does anyone believe we're up to the task?

We're not, and that's the worry. Because if we're not trying to understand how to shape the Internet so that its good effects outweigh the bad, powerful interests will do all the shaping. The Internet's design isn't fixed by natural laws. Its history is a fortuitous accident: an initial lack of commercial interests, governmental benign neglect, military requirements for survivability and resilience, and the natural inclination of computer engineers to build open systems that work simply and easily. This mix of forces that created yesterday's Internet will not be trusted to create tomorrow's. Battles over the future of the Internet are going on right now: in legislatures around the world, in international organizations like the International Telecommunications Union and the World Trade Organization, and in Internet standards bodies. The Internet is what we make it, and is constantly being recreated by organizations, companies, and countries with specific interests and agendas. Either we fight for a seat at the table, or the future of the Internet becomes something that is done to us.

Power and the Internet (Thanks, Bruce!)


  1. The other aspect of this is that things that are human constructs are surprisingly hard to shift once they entrench themselves in the guise of “tradition”.  Almost all internal religious dispute is over “tradition”, for instance – which is why we* get so upset when people from the outside try to tell us so; it’s bad enough for people on the inside to do it (cf. Martin Luther for instance.)

     *yes, I am a Christian and I spent years involved with “ecumenism” (which is about bringing different Christian groupings together) – and it was always tradition that was the stumbling block.   And yes, before anyone says anything, I do believe that “organised religion” is a human construct.  Religion itself may be something else entirely.

    But my experience tells me that changing these traditions doesn’t happen overnight – or even over years.  And the critical problem with the Internet is that it does change almost overnight.  What was once reasonable legislation (e.g. the Computer MIsuse Act) is rendered archaic and wholly inappropriate almost before it reaches the statute books.

    Whilst I agree that “fighting for a seat at the table” is hardly unimportant, I am growing more convinced that it is inherently meaningless.

  2. Unfortunately, the game is for the most part rigged, isn’t it?

    Arguing for freedom when communicating over privately owned infrastructure is a dead end argument because the default expectation is for moral behavior by real people but not on the part of Private companies/paper people. 
    A meatier argument involves individual freedoms but we’re almost done facebooking those away aren’t we?

    Unfortunately, while facebook is a good tool for communicating in theory, in practice it tries to hold its audience captive by only giving you the option to “like stuff”. I suspect that OWS and other movements would be longer lived if we had both a “like” and a “disagree” button.

  3. I see I’m only the fourth person to comment about some of the greatest threats to open and near instant communication with family, friends, work, commerce, and entertainment and we’re just gonna…. bah.  I give up.  I hear the Kardashians are gonna save us all, anyway!

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