The price of online collectivism

Early on in the development of today’s Internet and the World Wide Web, researchers noted that the technology had many equalizing and refreshing qualities. It was the first medium to break out of the traditional centralized model of mass distributed entertainment established by television and radio broadcast technology, and the first widescale information delivery system to empower individual end users to distribute their own content at a reasonable cost. Many of the early researchers thought that the Internet delivered on the promise of equal, economical and global sharing of information.

When the Internet boomed into the public consciousness, and the current ceaseless upward spiral of new users and innumerable new applications started, scientists and reporters soon agreed that this had been to be expected. After all, giving people such a great new form of communication has to be a killer application. The phenomenal growth of the Internet was attributed to its role of the first publishing medium to promote active participation.

The above reasoning may well have its merits. True enough, I would not be putting this text up for thousands of people to see were it not for network technology and the Web. And if I were, few people would ever see it, except of course for the proliferation of search engines.

But the way I see it, this brave new world of bedroom publishing could not have really resulted from the technical quality of the underlying medium alone. Instead I feel the greatest single reason why the Net should have come as important and widely spread as it is today is that it offered freedom, a possibility to transcend the hierarchies of modern Western nation states. The early Net could arguably have been the only contemporary haven for liberalism, without boundaries and restrictions set by governments and despots. And as anyone familiar with the theory of liberalism knows, such a climate is the one to promote growth and prosperity. The sudden explosion of the Internet is to me the latest and greatest achievement of liberalism, an ideology largely declared extinct.

So why the past tense? Isn’t the Internet doing just fine, right now?

Lately, at the suggestion of some old skool cypherpunks, I’ve been going through a sort of required reading list. Amongst others, the list includes such libertarian authorities as Hayek and Friedman, both brilliant, hardline free trade advocates and Nobel laureates. Upon advancing with Hayek’s classic Road to Serfdom, it suddenly struck me that the book is highly relevant to what is happening with the Internet governance battles of today.

Now, if something, that shouldn’t have surprised me—the stuff wouldn’t be on the list were it not relevant. But still seeing the parallel between, in one hand, attempts at online censorship, initiatives aimed at global governance of the Internet and frenzied reporting on the imminent threat of online pedophilia/terrorism/hacking/whatnot and, on the other, the description of the motivations behind and the methods of collectivism in the Road, sent chills down my spine. As did the fact that the ongoing reshaping of online content and models of interaction I’ve until now viewed as an unfortunate side effect of the commercialization of the Net, suddenly started to seem a lot like the what Hayek foresees as the result of collectivism asserting itself upon a nation. Quite simply, it now seems to me that the liberal values of the online economy have already largely been stamped out, and that some unmistakable signs of the resulting stagnation are here for all to see.

One recent example is the skirmish between Yahoo Inc. and the French government. Here the French suddenly realized that while their legislation forbids the dissemination of Nazi propaganda, amongst it Hitler’s Mein Kampf, the material is freely available via online order through Yahoo. A trial ensued, and the court proceeded to hand down a ruling telling Yahoo to stop French people from placing orders for the material. Few questions about technical feasibility or jurisdictional matters ever arose—a French court issued an extraterritorial, technically questionable order to a US based corporation in the hopes that certain disagreeable material not be made available to French citizens. Eventually, in a bizarre and frightening turn of events, and quite beyond any reasonable expectation, Yahoo Inc. abided by the ruling as best it could.

In the age of neo‐Nazism and general hysteria over the rise of racial intolerance it is no wonder something like this would sooner or later happen. Most people probably even think this is justified; after all, we have to stop Nazism from gaining ground, right?

What is forgotten here is that even if restricting the spread of ideologies‐deemed‐unworthy is morally sound, there are plenty of other ways to the same end besides outright censorship. (And indeed that is a big if: thinking about neo‐Nazism as something we can punish for in my mind fulfills all the criteria of true, Orwellian Thought Crime.)

Were there still some liberalism alive in the West, someone would have raised the objection that the invisible hand of economics would likely deal with the problem entirely without state intervention, as intolerance implies less trade and consequently less wealth for the intolerant. Or that online culture is likely to counter intolerance and bigotry with its inherent multiculturalism. That pro‐tolerance activism is on the rise, globally. That propaganda, if well‐known works of the past can even be called that, by and large does not make people Nazis, but rather satisfy the reading habits of existing ones. Facts which, taken together, amply compensate for the threat posed by the availability of national socialist writings.

What we have instead is a precedent of extraterritorial censorship of online content.

Although Hayek’s Road mostly bases its argument on economic collectivism, the parallel to the above sort of control and its consequences is disquieting. Basically what has happened is that governments have been put into a position to control the spread of ideologies, something which certainly isn’t in their proper sphere of influence. Effectively, states have been put into the business of planning the economy of ideas. To achieve such a drastic end, they of course have to use methods which are far more powerful and dangerous than they’d ever think beforehand: the iron hand of censorship. This is of course just a necessary consequence of trying to control, plan, what before was a free economy. Then, befitting the collectivist ideals behind any such attempt to homogenize people’s attitudes, we see the dangerous arrogance Adam Smith once so eloquently described—the thought that the most efficient way to effect the change is a well‐intentioned, rational plan, implemented by a central agency.

But still what we really have is simply a precedent of extraterritorial censorship of online content, with all the bitter irony of censorship being used to control the spread of totalitarianism.

In the same breath we must note that national socialism is the leading example in Hayek’s work, which gives a host of solid reasons for its rise in the post‐first World War Germany. Most of the reasons have to do with precisely the kind of collectivism which I see the above ordeal as evidence of. So, perhaps paradoxically, liberal ideals and concordant actions might well help us a lot more than censorship in the battle against the spread of neo‐nazism. This line of thought is what gave Road to Serfdom its notoriety in a time when socialist ideology was in vogue among the academia.

Censorship is perhaps the most frightening and well‐known example of the demise of liberal ideals, online. But the change is underway in many other respects as well. The governance battles which lead to the birth of ICANN are a prime example of Hayekian prophecy come true. The fact that ICANN is already being (mockingly) described as a sort of New World Government nicely summarizes the immense consequences this development might carry.

In this case, the commercialization of the Internet lead to a huge demand for a scarce resource, sensible dotcom domain names. The earlier policy of IANA had been to allocate the names in a first come, first served order, later with some safeguards against cyber‐squatting. But corporations, discontented with not being able to obtain their trademark as their dotcom domain name, and used to wielding their considerable litigative power, went into rent‐seeking mode and managed to persuade the US government to relocate IANA’s DNS related responsibilities to the newly formed ICANN. The latter, with its infamous UDRP, is a premium example of a bureaucracy which has been given unlimited power in its field, simply to make the wheels turn smoothly.

The price of having an ICANN around is already becoming abundantly clear: the little people are having a hard time with UDRP’s biased treatment of trademarks‐come‐domains, and many are weary of the inefficiency that would be created if some of the manifold proposals to use the DNS to effect centralized content classification policy were to be implemented. The problem is, a technical registrar of pivotal importance to the Net infrastructure has for the first time been given the privilege of discretion. This means that it can now mediate coercive power, and is becoming politicized.

All this naturally constitutes just another phenomenon with a parallel in the Road. Hayek’s thesis is that when we put things over which consensus cannot be reached under collective control, we erode the efficiency of the democratic process. Soon thereafter someone cries out for the installation of a benevolent tyrant to break the impasse that necessarily develops. Currently we’re waiting for its newly found power to terminally corrupt ICANN.

Examples of collectivist sympathies abound in the Net. Governance battles rage, with the IP industry and traditional nation states leading the battle. This is no great surprise, given that a considerable portion of world’s nations, including the USA, have already given in to at least some form of collective planning of the economy. It seems likely that in a couple of decades the Internet will seem more like the current mass media, bearing little resemblance to its heyday of laissez‐faire freedom and creative anarchy.

What worries me is that Hayek’s brilliant treatise probably hasn’t lost its relevance over the years. If its message is to be believed, we are heading towards stagnation and mediocrity in the greatest of today’s high tech media. Given that I see the Internet hold the greatest promise of free speech and participatory communication since the advent of the written word, I think there is real reason for concern. It is to be hoped that many enough people notice the current trend and take up the issue with those who try to quench the liberal impetus behind online culture. In my mind it isn’t too much to ask that the Internet, if nothing else, could be preserved as a domain of unabridged individual freedom, the ideal which after all gave rise to it in the first place.