Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Myth of Internet Decentralization...

Contrary to prevailing wisdom, the Internet is far from the decentralized network for which it is often characterized. Despite its users being scattered around the globe, a small handful of telecommunications firms own the infrastructure, and a relatively small number of ISPs control people's access to it. As a result, power has failed to be redistributed from an elite class to the masses in cyberspace.

The rosy ideal of true believers looks something like the following: Throughout human history, political power has been consolidated in the hands of an elite few. The Internet, because it is a decentralized network with no one in a privileged position of authority, challenges such notions of centralized power. With everybody on the network considered on equal ground for participation, it is a democratizing force that redistributes power from the elites to the masses, which will inevitably lead to all the children of the world holding hands together to sing a song of peace in universal harmony.

But here are the facts. A few giant telecom corporations (whose number can be counted using your fingers) own the wires and cables that allow the Internet to physically exist. They set the prices for its use, maintain its operation, and make decisions that affect what material can and cannot be sent over its pipes. Likewise, virtually all Internet users in the United States connect to the Web by having to subscribe to an Internet Service Provider (ISP) like AOL, Verizon, or Cablevision, who may take down website material or cut off users' Internet access at will for violating their terms of service. In many cases, the infrastructure owners are even one and the same as the service providers.

What this means is that decision-making power on Internet issues still primarily resides in the hands of an elite class - namely, the telecoms and ISPs. This is not to sound like some paranoid conspiracy theory bashing capitalism, nor is it to intended to pass judgment on whether this is a positive or negative development, only to observe that it is, in fact, the current state of being.

Yet it hardly has to remain that way. True believers need not wallow in depression. The redistribution of social power that they seek may still be attainable by focusing on the original goal of decentralization. People can run their websites on open source Apache servers from their home PCs, form co-ops to negotiate Internet service agreements (essentially becoming their own ISPs), and develop free WiFi hotspots rather than use the cable and DSL networks, because, after all, the public owns the airwaves.

Ultimately, the Internet does indeed still hold tremendous potential for shifting power from an elite class to the masses. But as democratic theory suggests, it's not enough to create an equal level playing field on paper, or in this case, in the network. People still have to be actively engaged and educated - or, in other words, willing to take action - to prevent consolidations of decision-making authority by others.



At 2:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm pregnant. its yours.


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