Ask the experts: Who controls the internet?

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Is the internet erasing national borders? Will the web’s future be set by engineers, rogue programmers, the United Nations or powerful countries? Who is really in control of the internet?

Jack Goldsmith, author of Who Controls the Internet?, and Thomas W. Hazlett of’s New Technology Policy Forum answer your questions on state control and the web’s challenge to governmental rule in an online Q&A.

How much of a negative effect could net neutrality have on Google?

Ken Desormes

Thomas W. Hazlett: Trick question, right? Google is, of course, the champion of net neutrality (NN) regulation. Presumably, its executives know their corporate interests, and are true to them.

But I shall take the bait and answer the question about a potential downside in NN for Google’s shareholders. The insertion of new rules to constrain how phone carriers and cable operators price broadband services would produce a range of consequences. Google is fond of those it can see. It likes the current pricing scheme in broadband (where customers pay a flat monthly fee, and then dine at an all-you-can-eat buffet) and desires a law to freeze it.

Yet the results of such a policy that Google cannot yet see may be very nasty. Prohibition of ‘non-neutral’ offerings could - no one yet understands what NN law would precisely permit - wipe out wholly productive dealings. Opening up a second revenue stream for broadband operators, taking a slice of applications, might well push network build-out. It is interesting that an upstart WiMAX competitor in the US, Clearwire, is providing a ‘non-neutral’ wireless broadband product, blocking VoIP service from outside vendors in favour of its own bundled product. Having no market power, it clearly is not motivated by monopoly returns. Apply NN regulation to this broadband entrant would unequivocally tend to reduce consumer choice among ISPs - ultimately hurting Google.

Jack Goldsmith: Google supports net neutrality, so presumably it doesn’t think it will have a bad effect, on balance.

Do you think that super search engines like Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft could some day enforce a restrictive policy that would require using their services on an exclusive basis?

Len Butler, New York

TH: No. The web service is simply unable to limit your choices. You are free to exit and take up with another.

Keep in mind that the reason people flock to a web site like Google is because they want Google to take them to other sites. Google (and Microsoft and Yahoo) do this seamlessly and efficiently. Google’s great success has been in making their World Wide Web escort service so pleasant and productive for users, and then monetising a traveller’s journey by flashing optimally designed billboards at every turn. Were Google (or Microsoft or Yahoo) to take their customers hostage, the flow would stop.

JG: I see no reason why search engines would spend the resources to do this. But in theory Google (or another search engine) could require, as a condition for using its service, that you enter into a contract promising not to use other search engines. Such a contract, assuming it is legal, would be hard to monitor and enforce. So for many reasons I doubt that this is a realistic possibility.

How would you describe what the self dynamic social networking sites are experiencing and who will, shall or could show leadership if a community goes into a direction of concern? The members are from all over the world and a site is only a platform that does not control content unless it is of illegal nature.

Ralf, New York City

JG: I assume you are talking about sites like There are two kinds of concerns that these sites might raise, both implicit in your question.

The first concern is illegal activity on these sites. If something happens on these sites that violates a nation’s law (such as criminal inducement, or fraud, or copyright violations), then ultimately the nation whose law is being violated is responsible to enforce the law. But the nation will not likely enforce the law against the individual perpetrator; it will likely enforce it against myspace, which is an easier target and the entity that can self-police its site. If myspace is somehow beyond the nation’s reach (because it has no physical presence or assets in that nation), then the nation has various fallback strategies: enforcing the law through local ISPs, or local financial intermediaries, and the like.

The second concern involves activities that are not illegal, but that are still bad or, as you say, that go “into a direction of concern.” Perhaps you think these sites promote bad values among young people, or waste their time. These concerns have to be regulated in different ways – through parental and school supervision, or through private individual pressure on the company, or, perhaps, by pressuring a government to get involved and regulate the matter with new laws.

How far will political control over the web go in democratic emerging economies? Shall more freedom of speech be granted across these countries than in developed democracies? Will it be a shortcoming of fast economic development, a shortcoming, which will soon be compensated; or is it going to be a sensible step onwards self-built path? What specific examples make you think one way or another?

Denis Kolesnichenko, Russia

TH: Governments reflexively seek to assert control over emerging media, even in democratic countries. The interesting aspect of internet regulation is not that it occurs - as when China censors freedom searches on Google or procures dissidents’ email messages from Yahoo! - but that it is relatively relaxed and, hopefully, ineffectual. Radio broadcasting was tightly controlled by state broadcasting authorities in its initial decades, as was television. The U.S. policy was comparatively liberal, but it has (since 1927) licensed commercial broadcasters and imposed content restrictions declared unconstitutional when levied on newspapers.

It is interesting to get this question from Russia, where we learned 15 years ago that fax machines empowered citizens to rally beyond the reaches of the state, and then gasped as CNN news broadcast (unlicensed by the authorities in Moscow) captured one dramatic moment in the life of a nation - helping to end it. It seems plain that the distribution of information by today’s communications networks simply brings this technological momentum for liberty to the next level.

JG: The internet was supposed to be a great democratising force, and was supposed to topple authoritarian states. It was also supposed to force states that wanted the economic benefits of the internet to open up their societies politically. But China is showing that an authoritarian nation can, if it wants, reap the economic benefits of the internet without incurring the “costs” of political openness. China is heavily subsidising the growth of the internet in China as part of its economic growth strategy. But it has also been enormously successful in controlling political speech on the network. It has controlled political speech in many ways: 1) it has enormous filters at the borders of the country that screen out unwanted content; 2) it has a powerful monitoring and filtering system within the country that screens harmful content from emails, chat rooms, blogs, and the like; 3) it enforces violations of political speech restrictions with harsh penalties of imprisonment that are widely publicised, and that effectively chill most people from even trying to engage in prohibited political speech; and 4) it is changing the network protocols within China to make all of the above much easier.

I thought the world’s users controlled the internet, but I am increasingly concerned about certain countries’ abusive control, such as China’s, as well as telco’s trying to meter access. Should I be concerned? And if not, why not?

Philip L Letts,

JG: It depends on what you mean by “control.” Internet users control what they write and receive, within the bounds of what national laws permit. But as the China example shows, nations can exercise extensive control over what you write and receive. And it is not just China that does this. There is censorship on the internet in Europe and the US too, although the censorship concerns not political speech (for the most part), but things like child pornography and internet content that violates copyright.

As for telcos trying to meter access, this is the “network neutrality” debate. I am not sure how concerned you should be about this. On the one hand you don’t want telcos blocking content providers that cannot afford to pay its price. On the other hand you might think telcos should be able to charge users of their pipes so that they can reap more from the enormous investment in the pipes, and build bigger and better pipes with more bandwidth. And of course there are many possibilities in between. The truth is that no one really knows whether ordinary internet users will on balance be better or worse off with metered access. It depends on the type of discrimination in question, and how telcos invest the profits. This suggests to me that the network neutrality debate should be conducted not on the basis of general theories and broad black or white answers, but rather at the retail level in response to particular types of network discrimination, if and when they occur.

TH: Governments have power: this is not a particularly new source of concern. The internet’s contribution here is to make the game quite a bit trickier for abusive governments. Centralised control centres find some efficiencies (once they figure out how to install their IT systems), but the real kick is provided to individuals who are empowered to access the databases of the world.

As for telcos’ metering your access, I recommend another worry. First, in the U.S. market, both cable operators and DSL carriers (telcos) are free to meter, but choose instead to ubiquitously offer one price for 24/7 service. Second, your service is already “metered” in the quantity sense, either with implicit or explicit constraints. Residential broadband subscribers are not permitted to clog the network with very high volume data transmissions; some networks actually roll back your online access speed to dial-up levels should you download too much bulk in a 24-hour period. But third, these constraints are perfectly helpful in encouraging broadband networks to first be built (requiring lots of investment in fixed capital) and then shared by users. Pricing - or ‘metering’ - is actually less onerous, of course, than a data limit, as it gives the user the choice as to where to stop.

The thing to worry about is not metering. It’s a very old fashioned concern: competition among networks. As a rule, more rivals are better. Worry about that.

Should Human Rights groups (including the UN) start listing the names of multinational internet companies who aid repressive governments with restrictive controls? Peoples’ freedom is not for sale.

Nanheyan Grouchuan, US

JG: That is one possible solution, but it is unclear how effective it will be. Cisco, Microsoft, Yahoo, and Google, among other American companies, are all known to have helped the Chinese government with its censorship project. And yet this bad publicity has not stopped them, because the economic rewards in China are so great.

TH: Raising the cost of corporations selling out to an evil regime is a good idea in theory. But the details are murky. I don’t know if the United Nations or human rights groups would effectively detail transgressions, which is a complicated matter. Our experience with economic sanctions against outlaw regimes does not provide encouragement, and these measures are undertaken by governments themselves.

What are the chances of states/unions with large internal net traffic (most obviously China and the EU) breaking with the US Domain Name System? What would happen if they did?

Pete Tiarks, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK

JG: There is no “US Domain Name System.” There is a global domain name system and it is more or less under the effective control of the United States, through an organisation called ICANN. China or the EU could in theory break off from this domain name system and start their own, but this would destroy the internet as we know it, making it worse for everyone. A more likely scenario is that the United States will eventually allow powerful governments like the EU nations and China to have a say in domain name policy. But this will be a slow and painful process, taking many years.

Is there any single entity or identifiable group of entities that could assert full control (or close to that!) of the internet, if it wanted to? If so, who?

Andrei Timoshenko, Portland, OR

TH: The dynamic of the internet is that its component parts are driven to link omnidirectionally. That makes for many nice outcomes, one of which is that no one party “asserts full control.” All the others have already constructed multiple escape hatches. Recall, too, that Microsoft was accused by the US government, in 1998, of attempting to do something not too far from what you suggest in the manner in which it marketed its web browser, Internet Explorer. It was accused of launching a “jihad” against Netscape’s Navigator and trying to foreclose the market for internet access on the software side. Today that assertion probably makes the folks at Google, and quite a few other places, chuckle.

JG: The closest thing to such an entity is ICANN, which controls the internet’s naming and numbering system. ICANN and its subordinates could in theory eliminate a computer from the internet, and that is ultimate control.

Softbank Corporation of Japan is listed as owning up a 40 per cent stake in nearly all of the original American listed internet IPO companies. Has anyone considered the consequences of this today, as those companies remain the main list companies now taking over non-listed internet companies?

Nicholas Iles, UK

TH: Why is Softbank’s ownership a problem? I can think of one reason: they neglected to buy my shares of US dotcoms before the crash of 2000!

Is the situation of Google in China being exaggerated? Besides Google, there are tons of search engines on the net.

Yifei, China

TH: I’m glad to hear that. But I’m addicted to Google.

Before we ask the question ‘who controls the internet’ surely we must ask ‘how are we going to develop the internet in the face of future technology’ and ‘who will own the technology? Don’t you agree?

Steve Evans, New Milton

TH: Yes, those are the key questions, but the trouble comes in looking for a subtle answer. The correct answer is obvious, some would say trivial. Capitalist economies have spawned the Internet because their legal structure - including property rights for network owners and IP for creative innovations - has incentivised investors, entrepreneurs and artists to cooperate in this massively complex undertaking. The new challenges should be confronted with precisely the same institutional support.

JG: You are right that technological developments will affect whether and how the various parties competing for control of the internet – nation-states, corporations, engineers, content-providers, ordinary users, and the like – will succeed. But nation-states have an advantage in this competition: the power of coercion. They have the power to determine who owns the technology by deciding whether and how to enforce intellectual property rights. They have the power to subsidise technological developments in particular directions. They have the power to make certain technological developments (like, for example, metering the internet) illegal. Many will fight back against these nation-state efforts, but the nation-states will have inordinate influence.

Background briefing:

Book review: Who Controls the Internet?

Thomas W. Hazlett: Neutering the net

Court’s ruling extends US jurisdiction online

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