The new politics of the internet
Everything is connected
Can internet activism turn into a real political movement?


Jan 5th 2013 | BERLIN AND DUBAI |From the print edition

WHEN dozens of countries refused to sign a new global treaty on internet governance in late 2012, a wide range of activists rejoiced. They saw the treaty, crafted under the auspices of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), as giving governments pernicious powers to meddle with and censor the internet. For months groups with names like Access Now and Fight for the Future had campaigned against the treaty. Their lobbying was sometimes hyperbolic. But it was also part of the reason the treaty was rejected by many countries, including America, and thus in effect rendered void.

The success at the ITU conference in Dubai capped a big year for online activists. In January they helped defeat Hollywood-sponsored anti-piracy legislation, best known by the acronym SOPA, in America’s Congress. A month later, in Europe, they took on ACTA, an obscure international treaty which, in seeking to enforce intellectual-property rights, paid little heed to free speech and privacy. In Brazil they got closer than many would have believed possible to securing a ground-breaking internet bill of rights, the “Marco Civil da Internet”. In Pakistan they helped to delay, perhaps permanently, plans for a national firewall, and in the Philippines they campaigned against a cybercrime law the Supreme Court later put on hold.

“It feels like when ‘Silent Spring’ was published,” says James Boyle, an intellectual-property expert at Duke University, North Carolina. The publication of Rachel Carson’s jeremiad on the effects of pesticides in 1962 is widely seen as marking the appearance of modern environmental awareness, and of the politics that goes along with it. Fifty years on, might the world really be witnessing another such moment, and the creation of another such movement—this one built around the potential for new information technology to foster free speech and innovation, and the threats that governments and companies pose to it?

The new green

Debate and dissent over the issues raised by the spread of information technology are not new. In the 1990s civil-liberties groups, including the pioneering Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), campaigned against the Communications Decency Act, part of which was eventually overturned by America’s Supreme Court. Today every corner of the digital universe has its own interest group: consumer groups defend online privacy; hackers reject far-reaching software patents; researchers push for open access to scientific journals online; defenders of transparency call on governments to open their data vaults—or take the opening into their own hands.

As Mr Boyle’s analogy suggests, there was a similar diversity in early 1960s environmentalism. Some sought to clean the Hudson river, some to stop logging in Tasmania, some to ban nuclear tests. But as the late American environmentalist Barry Commoner put it: “The first law of ecology is that everything is connected to everything else.” As it was with the environment, so it became with environmentalism. Over the course of the 1960s and 1970s disparate concerns were tied together into a single, if far from seamless, movement that went on to wield real power.

The internet is nothing if not an exercise in interconnection. Its politics thus seems to call out for a similar convergence, and connections between the disparate interest groups that make up the net movement are indeed getting stronger. Beyond specific links, they also share what Manuel Castells, a Spanish sociologist, calls the “culture of the internet”, a contemporary equivalent of the 1960s counter-culture (in which much of the environmental movement grew up). Its members believe in technological progress, the free flow of information, virtual communities and entrepreneurialism. They meet at “unconferences” (where delegates make up their own agenda) and “hackerspaces” (originally opportunities to tinker with electronics); their online forum of choice will typically be something such as a wiki that all can contribute to and help to shape.

In some countries the nascent net movement has spawned “pirate parties” that focus on net-policy issues; the first, in Sweden, was descended from the Pirate Bay, a site created to aid file sharing after Napster, a successful music-sharing scofflaw, was shut down. Pirate Party International, an umbrella group, already counts 28 national organisations as members. Most are small, but Germany’s Piratenpartei, founded in 2006, has captured seats in four regional parliaments.

The green movement had intellectual leadership from within academia, such as that of Commoner and his sometime sparring partner, Paul Ehrlich. So does the net movement. One leading light is Lawrence Lessig, whose most influential book, “Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace”, argues that computer code is just as important in regulating behaviour as legal code. Another is Yochai Benkler, whose “The Wealth of Networks” extols the virtues of “commons-based peer production” like that seen in open-source software communities, where volunteers write and debug code as a gift to the community at large.

And as the environmental movement had a radical wing in organisations such as Earth First! and the Earth Liberation Army, its digital successor has also developed a direct-action arm. In early October Anonymous, a “hacktivist” collective, took down a bunch websites in Sweden as a protest against efforts to extradite Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, from Britain.

It is hard to imagine people getting as worked up about a leak of personal data or a tightening of copyright laws as they would over a nuclear disaster or global warming. The ITU does not seem to matter in the same way as the health of the planet. “Most [internet issues] have the electoral sex appeal of a transport-infrastructure plan,” jokes Stephan Klecha, who studies pirate parties at Göttingen University.

But it is plausible that people who spend much of their lives online may come to feel strongly about the technological and ideological infrastructure that they depend on. “If they see it threatened, they will fight back,” insists Tiffiniy Cheng of Fight for the Future, one of the advocacy groups that organised the anti-SOPA campaign. According to a study by the Boston Consulting Group, which surveyed consumers in 13 countries, on average 75% would give up alcohol, 27% sex and 22% daily showers to secure internet access for a year if forced to choose (see chart).

Like environmental issues, the issues that this new movement cares about can be cast as economic ones; and when put that way they look somewhat similar. Since Garrett Hardin’s 1968 essay “The Tragedy of the Commons”, environmental issues have increasingly come to be seen in terms of “negative externalities”. Hardin argued that common properties would be overexploited because the benefits of the exploitation would be appropriated by the people doing the exploiting, whereas the costs fall on all equally.

Common causes

In part because of this economic logic, the principle of making polluters pay—of internalising the externalities, as the economists put it—is fundamental to the carbon taxes and cap-and-trade regimes for pollutants pushed by pragmatic environmentalists (for all that their more radical brethren seethe at reducing everything to calculable financial costs and benefits).

Network politics are also often concerned with the issues raised by commons. The internet—means and motive for much activism—is a clear example of such a digital resource: anyone can access it under the same conditions and all traffic can, at least theoretically, be treated equally (a state which is known as “network neutrality”, and a great rallying cry). But here the externalities not captured by the market are more positive than negative. Often, the more people share and use such a commons, the more they all benefit.

When externalities do harm, internalising them makes a lot of sense. When they do good, things are a bit more complex. Some level of internalising may be needed: this is, indeed, the basic argument for intellectual-property rights. Without them, innovators may not benefit enough from sharing their creations, reducing the incentive to create. But a system set to maximise private returns will not necessarily maximise total returns.

Brett Frischmann, a professor at the Cardozo School of Law in New York, provides a thorough look at the issues in his book “Infrastructure: The Social Value of Shared Resources”. Infrastructure—both digital and otherwise—is used by many for all kinds of activities, and is often to some extent “non-rival”, meaning one person’s use does not forestall another’s. Limiting their use, for instance by pricing them depending on who uses them and for what, can limit their value and slow innovation.

To get the most benefit, Mr Frischmann argues, “We should share infrastructure resources in an open, non-discriminatory manner when it is feasible to do so.” This does not necessarily rule out property rights; but it does mean avoiding the temptation to treat everything as if it were a physical bauble in which only a single owner had an interest. History shows that custom and practice, social norms and other non-market mechanisms can keep commons from becoming tragic under a wide range of circumstances.

Mr Boyle makes similar points when he writes, in his book “The Public Domain” that societies need to strike “a balance between open and closed, owned and free.” It is his contention, and that of the rest of the net movement, that governments are systematically getting this balance wrong. They are stuck in the physical world where most goods are rival and cannot be easily shared, he argues. Their critics contend that the activists make the same mistake in reverse, thinking everything can be shared and ownership need not matter at all.

Such thinking explains what drives many net activists: they prize an ideal of net neutrality because they fear turning the internet into a toll road that limits both expression and experimentation; they fear overbroad patents will hamper research; they think making government data freely available stimulates new uses. This insight helps explain the seeming grab-bag of issues that passes for a political programme in Germany’s Pirate Party—including demands for free public transport, the right to vote for foreigners living in Germany and a state-funded basic income for all. These proposals apply the idea of an information commons to what the Pirates see as “platforms” of all sorts: public transport, elections and society as a whole.

The degree to which the internet is new and different is also reflected in the net movement’s practicalities. “The internet fundamentally lowers the barriers to organisation,” says Kevin Werbach, who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. Like-minded souls no longer need painstakingly to build an organisational structure; a mailing-list is often enough to band together online.

Dissolving democracy

The anti-SOPA protest started with discussions on blogs and elsewhere, according to Harvard’s Mr Benkler, whose research team has analysed the content of online publications and links between activist websites. Techdirt, a blog, and other specialised online publications wrote about the new legislation. As people got interested, the more established advocacy groups such as the EFF and Public Knowledge came to serve as clearing-houses for information. Groups such as Avaaz, Fight For The Future and Demand Progress, whose aim is to mobilise netizens, started offering tools to help people signal their displeasure, including by writing to members of Congress: millions ended up using them. Internet firms such as Reddit and Tumblr provided organisational support, and larger companies were part of the lobbying effort: net-activists are less likely than Greens to shun corporate interests that coincide with their own. After fierce debate among its peer-producers, Wikipedia joined the campaign, greatly increasing its impact.

Germany’s Pirate Party flashed into existence with similar speed. A few weeks before the 2011 elections in Berlin pollsters gave it only a few percentage points. But with a minimum of resources, it managed to mount an efficient campaign using social media to mobilise voters and crowdsourcing to come up with slogans. With 8.9% of the vote, it won 15 seats on the regional assembly.

Getting it together quickly, though, is no proof of long-term commitment. Some have criticised the anti-SOPA and other online campaigns as mere “clicktivism”, requiring no more commitment than the twitch of a gamer’s finger. The anti-SOPA coalition is trying to show its staying power by becoming the Internet Defense League, essentially an online phone tree. People sign up by giving their e-mail address; websites can add a logo that signals their membership. If the league’s leaders see a threat to their conception of the internet, they send out an alert.

More intriguingly, technology may come to have a role in formulating policy, as well as disseminating calls for action. Germany’s Pirate Party runs a perpetual party conference on an online platform, called “Liquid Feedback”, designed to dissolve the distinction between direct and representative democracy. Rather than voting on an issue directly or electing representatives, party members can delegate their votes on given issues to another member whose opinion they trust—and take them back if they do not agree with the delegate’s decisions. Delegates can in turn pass the votes they collect to another member, thus putting together long and fluid “delegation chains”.

The system does not create a democratic paradise: most of the Pirates don’t use it. But it allows for very transparent decision making, argues Martin Haase, perhaps the most influential member of Germany’s Pirate Party, judging by the fact that 237 of the nearly 5000 registered users active on Liquid Feedback have delegated their votes to him. “There’s no dealing in smoky back rooms,” he explains, “you can always tell who has supported what.”

Interesting internal infrastructure, though, is no guarantee of further political gains. Germany’s political system makes creating a new party relatively easy, one reason why the Greens succeeded there in the 1980s. Yet the Pirates lack the political nous and broad appeal of the Greens. Almost two-thirds of Pirate supporters are men. Although the ideals of the net movement are often egalitarian its practice can be macho and elitist. The thousands of new members attracted by the Pirates’ Berlin success included a fair share of blowhards, troublemakers and worse

On the party’s e-mail lists, discussions of whether users of Liquid Feedback should be allowed to remain anonymous or how much Pirates in parliaments should be allowed to earn routinely blow up into bad-tempered “shitstorms”. Some of its leaders have resigned in disgust and exhaustion. In national polls the party has dropped from over 13% of the vote in May 2012 to around 3% now, below the threshold needed to enter state or national parliaments in this year’s elections.

A hack or an operating system?

New parties are not the only way to political success. In most of the world the green movement’s victories came from applying pressure to established parties, and spurring the creation of new institutions—ministries of the environment, environmental protection agencies, international treaty organisations and the like. It is still early days, but such institution building is hard to imagine for the net movement. Net politics is about freeing people to experiment rather than controlling their effluents. Although the state can guarantee freedoms, policy by policy it tends to do better, these days, on the shackling front.

Moreover net activists, many of whom are libertarian, are unlikely to call for the creation of “net ministries”. Many want to hack politics—to find a way to get the system to an outcome they desire through cleverness and force majeure applied from outside—much more than they want to play politics.

It is possible that the lasting influence of the net movement will be in providing new tools and tactics for people with other political aims. All political protest and novelty now has a social-media face, whether it be that of the tea party, the Occupy movement or the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt; all seek the fast-multiplying effect that the internet can add to activism and uprisings. Experiments in “delegative democracy” like Liquid Feedback may rewire the way politics works from the inside, as well as speed things up. In Germany other parties are experimenting with such systems; something similar powers Italy’s populist Five Star Movement.

When asked about why her organisation does not have a fully fledged political platform, Marina Weisband, one of the leaders of Germany’s Pirate Party, once replied: “We don’t offer a ready-made programme, but an entire operating system.” The true potential of internet politics, in other words, is to reshape what people can do, rather than to campaign for particular benefits.

It is not obvious that the sort of people who think of the world in terms of operating systems will prove to be the best at using that new potential, or find in it the power to protect the freedom and openness of all the infrastructure that they care about. But many of them are increasingly serious about trying.