Net Threats?

It’s good news that discussions on the “Future of the Internet” can still call up strong emotions.  That was certainly the case with the recent Pew report titled “Net Threats” which is here.  

In a New York Times Bits piece on July 5, I was quoted as being skeptical of the report’s conclusions.  Although the quote had a stronger tone than I would have wanted (I wasn’t given the chance to review it, and I certainly would not have placed quotation marks around the word ‘expert’), I am indeed skeptical.  Let me explain why.

This report, like many others, focuses intently on the risks to ‘the free and open’ internet.  It mentions nation states, censorship, commercialization, and intellectual property rights enforcement as some of the driving forces that threaten the future of the internet.  And it has a definite ‘sky is falling’ quality to it.  To read the Pew Report, you would think that we were all on the verge of being thrown out of the iGarden of Eden by governments, companies, and lawyers whose narrow short term self interest is tearing down humanity’s greatest achievement in aggregate human welfare, freedom, and creativity.  

Well, yes and no.  The Internet is a great achievement.  And all of these driving forces are pressing on the Internet.  But they have been doing so for some time.  Take commercialization.  To say the Internet is at risk of being commercialized is, on the face of it, kind of silly — because it has been commercialized for a very long time.  Do IP networks come into being as a force of nature?  Of course not, they are built by a large variety of organizations including for-profit telecommunications firms and state-owned enterprises.  Are the devices we use to access the Internet envisioned, designed, and built by non-profits?  Does Google make profits on advertising?  Some people and organizations create content that they give away for free, but many would like to be compensated for the effort and costs they incur in creating new things.  Is that a bad thing on the face of it? 

Like most human inventions, the Internet provides space for both commercial and non-commercial activity.  And there are good and bad things happening in both contexts.  The debate over the terms of commercialization is what really matters.  And those debates are complex matters of political economy and technology policy.  I do not believe it helps to play the ideology card in this context, particularly if the ideology points to an imaginary past where everything was free and anyone could do anything they wanted, anonymously, without exchange of value or money.  

The Internet is changing, but it has always been changing.  I am indeed concerned about new restrictions that governments are discussing (and in some cases, enacting) on data storage and usage for example.  But it’s never been as Wild West as some would imagine and if it had been, we wouldn’t have liked it very much.  On the Free and Open Internet where anyone can do anything they want, what’s the grounds for opposing Facebook’s experiments on emotion?  I am also concerned about overzealous regimes around intellectual property and data.  But has copyright enforcement visibly reduced the amount of quality content and creativity that the Internet carries?  It takes a pretty heroic counterfactual to argue that humanity is worse off in any of those domains in 2014 than we were in 2004 or than we could have been in some imaginary world.

I understand the deep desire to protect these and other gains that the Internet has brought.  But as a matter of political strategy, does ‘chicken little’ rhetoric really serve that goal?  Particularly when it comes, like a pendulum, after the equal but opposite extreme triumphalism during the Arab Spring.

The Internet is growing up, and so should the arguments about its risks and benefits.

Steven Weber

Steven Weber