The Internet Police: How Crime Went Online, and the Cops Followed

Nate Anderson is one of my favorite Ars Technica writers — always thorough and always evenhanded, but never shrinking from venturing an opinion or trying to put individual incidents in the context of the wider Internet. His new book, The Internet Police: How Crime Went Online, and the Cops Followed, is a brisk, eminently readable, and important history of the relationship between law, law enforcement, and the net, and as you'd expect, it's excellent.

Crime books are inherently interesting. All that salacious detail, all those ill-gotten gains, all that breathless chasing and courtroom drama. Internet Police is no exception. Anderson's reporting career has exposed him to innumerable cases of fascinating and horrifying networked shenanigans, and he cherry-picks the most interesting stories to tell, and tells them well, and uses each one to paint a broader picture of how the attempt to impose law and lawfulness on the Internet has unfolded at every turn.

Anderson does good work on drawing the connection between certain policing measures — censorship, surveillance, private copyright enforcement, campaigns to control devices and features — and the overall health of the Internet and the safety of its users. This is the most important and least understood element of the theory of networked policing: when you set the rules so that the police have an easy time of removing material from the Internet, or listening in, or disabling devices, or hijacking computers, you create a broad vulnerability that is available to everyone, not just the "good guys." He shows how poorly thought-through efforts to make it easier to enforce the rules just let the bad guys do worse — whether those bad guys are crooks, totalitarian governments, or bad cops.

For all that, Anderson's book is profoundly empathic. Even when he's showing you where the cops got it badly wrong, or where the entertainment industry's policy objectives were self-destructive and terrible for the net, he goes to some lengths to try to understand why the people who enacted these rules failed. He doesn't assume that mistakes spring from mere stupidity, and looks for the "reasonable" case for each mistake. He doesn't let the rich and powerful off the hook for their mistakes, but knowing how the mistakes got made is key to understanding how to prevent them in future.

I follow a lot of the same issues as Anderson, and in my view, he really understands this subject and brings a lot of insight to it. I did disagree with him in a few places — his description of the defeat of SOPA repeats the pernicious myth that it was killed because Google stood up to Congress; the truth is that there was a massive grassroots uprising that Google and other big players rode along for once it was clear that to do otherwise was to be on the wrong side of history. I suspect that Anderson was employing shorthand here, but this shorthand has an unfortunate coincidence with the story that power-players in DC tell each other about a world where big companies call all the shots and the little people don't matter.

That's a quibble, though. For the most part, I vigorously agreed with Anderson's analysis, and enjoyed the way he made connections I hadn't seen and filled in backstory I hadn't known about. All in all, this is a great choice for someone wanting to understand the way that law and code interact with each other.

The Internet Police: How Crime Went Online, and the Cops Followed