“What you represent is not a parallel universe, freed from rules of law… The Internet is now part of the life of many. It would be a contradiction to dismiss the governments of this huge forum. Nobody can or should forget that governments are in our democracies the legitimate representatives of the general will. To forget that is to risk democratic chaos and anarchy. To forget this would confuse populism with democracy of conscience.” — Nicolas Sarkozy, eG8, May 2011 (translated)
What does history tell us about attacks on the internet by governments? Will they succeed?
The internet of course has only been in existence for about four decades. You can, as Timothy Wu does, consider the fate of the internet at the hands of governments and oligopolists in the context of the broader regulation of communications since the late 19th century. He warns that there’s no particular reason why the cycle of innovation, commercialisation and government-approved oligopolist control that has applied to every new medium since the telegraph shouldn’t overtake the internet as well unless we act.
I want to go a little further back, since the interconnectedness of the internet is different to previous media revolutions over the last 130 years. Ruling élites have had to deal with the impact of interconnectedness before. Two useful examples of major waves of interconnectedness are from the English Reformation and industrialisation in the 19th century.
The Reformation wave of interconnectedness was best demonstrated by weavers, who played an important role in the spread of Protestantism in sixteenth century England. The textile industry operated in towns along key trading routes, meaning weavers were regularly exposed to news, new books and new ideas. And it was a highly literate industry. The 17th century cleric Richard Baxter wrote of the tradition “I have known many in the long loome that can set their sermon notes or a good book before them and read and discourse together for mutual edification while they worke.”
The connectedness of weaving – sitting, reading and debating the Bible together while working — made the textile industry a perfect vector for Protestantism, which emphasised a personal, bibliocentric form of religion. In the 17th century, the same traditions encouraged political radicalism in England — the weaving town of Taunton was a centre of a rebellion against James II in 1685, and paid heavily for it.
Workplace communication drove another wave of connectedness that had enormous political implications, as industrialisation drove the development of trade unions early in the 19th century, connecting together otherwise powerless individuals not just to establish basic protections for wages and conditions but, eventually, to pursue wider social and economic change at a national and international level.
In both cases, powerful élites fought back against interconnectedness. The first governmental reaction to nascent trade unionism was to simply ban it, by the Combination Acts at the start of the 19th century. In later decades, trade union leaders endured dire fates like being transported to Australia.
The experience of early English Protestants was more complicated because the Tudor regimes, Mary apart, wanted to drive a shift to Protestantism, but neither the Catholic hierarchy nor the Anglican one that replaced it was happy with the idea of people reaching their own conclusions about the meaning of the Bible — that was traditionally the role of the Church. By the time of Elizabeth, more radical forms of Protestantism were spreading, and they grew rapidly under her conservative Stuart successors.
These forms were correctly perceived not just as a threat to the Anglican Church but to the Stuart regime, especially forms like congregationalism that rejected the need for church hierarchies and, implicitly, political hierarchies — “no bishop, no King,” James I famously remarked. The efforts of his impressively witless son Charles I to suppress Nonconformity, as it was broadly known, were a key cause of the English Civil War.
19th century governments, and the Tudors and Stuarts and their churchmen, lacked the technology to try to suppress interconnectedness. Their preferred method was to ban unwanted activities resulting from it and make an example of leaders, when they could be found.
But over the longer term, élites adjusted to the reality of interconnectedness. They co-opted more moderate aspects of the movements that emerged from interconnectedness. With James II packed off to France, the English ruling class opened themselves up to Dissenters after 1688, removing legal burdens and prohibitions on worship (though Catholics continued to face discrimination). As the 19th century progressed, more liberal-minded English governments began acknowledging the pressing case for workplace reform and accepted a legal role for trade unions.
Part of this process was tactical and intended to undermine threats perceived as more radical. James II had tried to court Nonconformist support to introduce religious toleration as part of a scheme to enable the return of Catholicism to England, and 19th century English governments grew increasingly alarmed at the threat of socialist agitation even as they legalised trade unions and accepted their role in representing workers.
But why am I talking about puritans and the Tolpuddle Martyrs when this is supposed to be about the internet?
The attacks we’re seeing now are parallel the attacks launched on earlier waves of connectedness. Gatekeeper attacks from the copyright and legal industries are like the Churches — Catholic and Anglican — worried about their authority and legacy business model in a world where people are talking amongst themselves and getting from one another what they’d traditionally gotten from centralised institutions.
Governments that see an existential threat in whistleblowers and transparency are like the early 19th century British governments that saw in workers’ combinations a fundamental threat to law and order. Business owners demanded governments act against “combinations” like they demand action against online retailing or file-sharing (and they still rail against unions).
Plainly there are differences. In particular, previously technology merely facilitated interconnectedness and the reduction of centralised control. However, the technologies that create the internet are inherently decentralised and networked, indeed must be so, in the physical network that carries traffic, the centrifugal approach to management of traffic and in the open nature of the protocols that allow different networks to communicate.
Nicolas Sarkozy’s complaint about the internet lacking “the rule of law” and courting chaos is wrong. The internet has rules, but they are the rules of a centrifugal system, not the centripetal system that governments and gatekeepers prefer and are used to from the analog era (Johnny Ryan’s A History of the Internet and the Digital Future is the best guide I’ve read not just to the development of the internet but the significance of its “design”).
The internet’s rules necessarily avoid centralised systems amenable to government or corporate control in the way that, for example, broadcasting infrastructure is amenable. Sarkozy’s desperate demand for governments to be allowed to prevent the “chaos” and “anarchy” of the Internet is the ultimate example of Not Getting It, not merely at a cultural level but at a technical level, centripetal thinking for a centrifugal age. The logical consequence of such thinking is found in Hosni Mubarak and Bashar al-Assad switching off the internet when it becomes too threatening.
They are also rules under which users have far more power and information than they had under traditional hierarchical systems, and which make it easier for users to hide their real-world — “meatspace” in the wonderful online phrase — identities by taking advantage of the variety of paths available within a network (making it harder, incidentally, for centralised authorities to deploy the traditional tactic of exemplary punishment).
That’s not to say governments can’t be devastatingly effective in attacking the internet and its users – another difference from previous centuries is that they now have a more realistic chance of monitoring real-time interconnectedness through (frequently illegal) interception programs. But history suggests that over time governments will adjust to the latest wave of interconnectedness, and learn to accept much of what comes from it, including the relative diffusion of power, just as late 17th century and mid 19th century élites accepted the relative loss of power entailed in degrees of religious toleration and trade unions.
Such acceptance, however, takes time — centuries in the Reformation, decades in the Industrial Revolution. And at the moment such acceptance still seems a long way off. Resistance to government attacks therefore needs to continue until they start undergoing the same process of acceptance as previous élites have undergone.
*Tomorrow’s conclusion: tactics for defending interconnectedness