What is meant by The Closing of the Net?Iptegrityreaders will already have their own interpretation. Closing the net entails restrictions on Internet content, applications and services. Technology companies do have the capability to impose such restrictions. They can block. They can filter. They can monitor. There are many interests, including the companies themselves, who desire such restrictions. We know it’s happening and some researchers are beginning together the evidence, for example, the Lumen project at Stanford University. The political issue concerns the relationship between the Internet corporations and the State, and under what terms they should be allowed to do it, if at all.
In liberal democracies, closing the net is when you get a notice that the content you are looking for has been restricted by copyright holders. Closing the net is when your website is incorrectly filtered because it contains a keyword that’s on a block-list, even though your content is legal. As a consequence, your customers cannot find you, and your readers go elsewhere. Closing the net is when your broadband provider charges you multiples of the standard price to watch video from a site they don’t have a deal with. Call it preferential traffic management or call it zero rating, the effect is the same.
Of course, there is another interpretation of closing the net that applies in non-liberal regimes, where governments impose blanket monitoring of all websites, content platforms and personal communications and order the shut down, sometimes of the entire Internet, for political reasons. That is called censorship. This kind of authoritarian censorship is not specifically addressed in my book.
Instead I address the more subtle politics of restriction in liberal democracies. It’s a scenario where restrictions are imposed by private actors, often, although not always, for commercial reasons. Those private actors tend to be large corporations who seek to exert political influence in order to protect their perceived business interests. The effect may well result in a form censorship, although many would argue that this is not the intent. It is this subtlety of influence and non-transparency of intention that makes it critically important for citizens to understand it.
In my analysis, closing the net is also about preferential display of content on a smartphone screen. Smaller than the traditional postcard, this screen is now how many people receive their news, entertainment and personal communications. The size implies a limitation on what people can see, but when the large platform corporations, such as Facebook, are deciding on what should be limited by means of ‘personalisation’ techniques, it implies a form of closure. The data that is used for personalisation is also sought by States for intelligence purposes, and in that regard, the relationship between States and corporations takes on a new significance.
A particular difficulty arises when political interests, such as the intelligence services, begin to demand restrictions. For example, when an EU government blocks a site to help migrants fleeing Syria, this is another form of closing the net. How far does it go before we do end up with an authoritarian censorship? In this context, the relationship between the technology industries and governments becomes very tricky. The technology companies fear an increase in liabilities but at the same time, they increase their power over States.
The Closing of the Net discusses that relationship of States versus corporations. It considers how the large network providers and content platforms seek to influence public policy. It analyses the various calls for technology companies to ‘do something’ and the policy responses. All of this is discussed in the context of multiple, apparently unconnected agendas. Those agendas are copyright, net neutrality, data protection, mass surveillance, content filtering and cloud computing. The assumption behind my analysis is an academic theory of structural power, evolved by the former LSE professor Susan Strange in the 1980s, and very much resonant with today’s Internet policy agendas. Structural power suggests that these corporations control the means of access to knowledge because they control the structures through which knowledge is disseminated. They control the transmission, storage and retrieval of information. They know who is communicating what and when. The political activity of the corporations is intended to protect this power.
The point is that if they get their way, the outcome would be a form of restriction. If they win every agenda point, the combined impact of such restrictions could be severe. The Closing of the Net will not be a single dropping of the portcullis. It will be a slow, subtle imposition that will not be noticed until it is too late.