My latest book is now available in bookstores. It's published by Polity Press. Here I outline what the book is about.
What is meant by The Closing of the Net? Iptegrity readers will already have their own interpretation. The notion has been helpfully or otherwise referred to by Donald Trump who called for "closing that Internet up in some way". Trump was reflecting calls by various political interests, including the intelligence services, for the technology companies to 'do something'. Do something about what? He was calling for restrictions on content reflecting undesirable agendas such as extremism. Closing the net entails
restrictions on Internet content, applications and services. Techology 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 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.
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"
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
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