The Closing of the Net   (Polity Press 2016)

"takes the pulse of the open web" Journal of IP Law & Practice

What is meant by The Closing of the Net?  The notion reflects calls by various political interests for the Internet platforms like Facebook or Twitter  to 'do something' about  content that

reflects undesirable agendas such as extremism, copyright infringement or some form of hate speech.  Closing the Net is about ways in which political agendas seek to impose restrictions on Internet content, applications and services or in some other way create a chilling effect. Techology companies do have the capability to block,  filter and monitor. There are many interests, including the companies themselves, who desire such restrictions.   We know it's happening and some researchers are beginning to gether 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 blocklist, 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 specfically 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. This is the Trump agenda. 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.

 

 






"In a book that looks deep into the dark side of law-making, one can expect a little drama." Society for Computers & the Law

Today's communications fabric relies on a layered connective space (the Internet). The corporate power that underwrites that space generates an unprecedented power problem for democracy. Monica Horten's sharply written book confronts that problem head-on, with striking case studies. Who really benefits from the "fingertap of desire" that drives our device use? Read this illuminating book to find out."  Nick Couldry, London School of Economics and Political Science

"Monica Horten writes about human beings' greatest invention the Internet and the emerging political and social trends that may cloud its future. Few thinkers could paint such a compelling, unified picture of the political forces across net neutrality, privacy, and mass surveillance it is politics, not technology, that will most determine the Internet that our children inherit." Marvin Ammori, Affiliate Scholar at Stanford Law School, Center for Internet and Society

"The Closing of the Net describes how, as it grates against questions of public interest, the corporate aims of structural power are being negotiated
between monetisers and policy-makers in legislative chambers and courtrooms" 
Engineering and Technology Magazine

 Many readers will be familiar with some of these stories,  but as Horten reveals, it is only when they are considered together that the full picture begins to become clear. This is what makes her book both original and valuable.  Times higher Education

"In a book that looks deep into the dark side of law-making, one can expect a little drama." Society for Computers & the Law

"an essential read for anyone interested in understanding the forces at play behind the web." ITSecurity.co.uk

"a must-read for any lawyer studying the legislation that Internet politics produces" Journal of Intellectual Property Law & Practice

"an easy read and neatly avoids the trap of being too dry to hold the interest of one who doesn’t specialise in a cyber-related field"  LSE Review of Books

"reads like a very dark, thriller-esque struggle… How bad are things really?" Deutsche Welle online


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Iptegrity.com is the website of Dr Monica Horten. She is  a trainer & consultant on Internet governance policy, published author& Visiting Fellow at the London School of Economics & Political Science. She served as an independent expert on the Council of Europe Committee on  Internet freedom (MSI-INT). Most recently she has worked on projects in the former Soviet states.  She was shortlisted for The Guardian Open Internet Poll 2012. Iptegrity  offers expert insights into Internet policy. Iptegrity has a core readership in the Brussels policy community, and has been cited in the media. Please acknowledge Iptegrity when you cite or link.  For more, see IP politics with integrity

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