• Law, Policy -- and IT?

    Tracy Mitrano explores the intersection where higher education, the Internet and the world meet (and sometimes collide).


Culture Law and Society of the Internet, Part I


July 13, 2011


[For Cornell's Summer Session I am teaching a six week course on the "Culture, Law and Politics of the Internet." One of the assignments is that students must write nine blogs, three a week for three weeks, about readings from books or contemporary journalistic articles. The comment I made to one of the blogs reproduced below responds to Goldsmith and Wu's "Who Controls the Internet," a must read book for any discussion on this topic -- which is not to say it is perfect in every regard, but it is an excellent response to the early notions of the Internet that suggested it was above or below the law, nation states or other government forces and that network administrators, essentially, could control malfeasance by marshaling the collective (good) social norms of users. In particular, this student noted then President Clinton's flip remark that the PRC would not be able to control content with the assumption, first, that the technology was so inherently powerful, and second, that the people of China would unequivocally use it for political liberation along the lines of free speech culture in the United States.

Thought perhaps readers of the blog might be interested in the ideas of this discussion too!


The underlying theme of the examples you report, from Iceland to China, demonstrate that where humans go, nature goes with them. To this day I hear "old timers" of the "net" talk about how technology can undermine existing political powers no matter whether those powers be nation states or the laws within them. To talk absolutes in this discussion is a fool's game, because neither side of the argument is accurate completely, it is always a question of how much and in what way technology can exist below authoritative radar and/or how dominant political power or law can control the technology ... and the culture of which it is both part and driver.




What is often missing from these discussions is a line of thought that includes a developmental trajectory in the analysis. Rather than thinking of "technology" or "law" as a an immutable solid "thing" or force, giving those categories a reified quality, we should think of those categories just as man-made, and therefore subject to human nature, as we would "politics" or "culture" or any other aspect of society. When highly disruptive technologies emerge in fertile economic, social and political fields, “discoveries” become “inventions.” Technological inventions become a part of the forces that advances the society (usually, if nothing else, speeding change, although often adding qualitative elements as well). Because they disrupt other areas of governance, market relations and social norms, there are moments in the rise of the inventions when they seems so powerful that nothing can stem their tide (Napster in its early days!), until law (copyright!) or social norms (ethical reasons why not to infringe copyright) or market influences (iTunes) rise up, appropriate their power and acculturate it in socially stable ways. To be sure, many other categorical areas change as well, such as economic, social and political structures in the case of periods of profound historical change. How the printing press fits into the emergence of capitalism and democratic republics, the Protestant Reformation and ideological notions of bourgeois individualism out of feudal social relations in the modern era of Western European history would be a good example.




In the moment, President Clinton was not wrong in his assessment, but set his thoughts in the reality of the People's Republic today and it is a different picture, obviously. The ruling party smartly uses all four factors that influence the Internet to control speech and content on the Internet: technological controls, (border routers, for example), law (arbitrarily, at least from a U.S. perspective, because we do not punish expression of political ideas), the market (which is the most open because it fuels its economy) and especially social norms (whereby the government hires people to monitor chat rooms and to direct communication along politically correct lines). Can smart network users tunnel under the routers or brazen citizens find covert chat rooms in which to discuss their "politically incorrect" ideas? Of course! But the vast majority of Chinese people conform to these strictures either out of respect or fear, or because they believe (reasonably, in my personal view) that the government pursues social order out of a cultural tradition that long antedates the revolution in 1949 and, all things considered, has brought an unprecedented degree of global power to the country that for too long lay subject to the corrupting influence of foreign powers throughout the modern period of history.




All of which is to say that we cannot understand "the Internet" without a more informed appreciation of all of the other aspects of history, culture and society!



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