Foreign Policy
Summer 1999

The Internet
By Andrew L. Shapiro*


Information Age gurus claim the Internet will alleviate global poverty, empower individuals, revolutionize commerce, and spread the light of democracy to far corners of the globe—so long as governments keep their hands off. Think again. Without careful regulation, digital technology may devastate low-income communities and eliminate personal privacy. And repressive regimes may harness the Internet to increase their power over the people.


The Internet Is Inherently Democratizing

Wrong. Pundits and politicians alike are fond of making this claim, but it is an empty truism and a dangerous one at that. The Internet does have strong democratic proclivities. As a vast forum that encourages “many-to-many” interaction, the Net makes it possible for citizens around the world to participate in public dialogue. Its decentralized structure helps individuals bypass gatekeepers and control the flow of information and goods. And its nonproprietary nature—no one owns the technical protocols that make the Net work—suggests a degree of openness and public purpose. Yet these features are shaped by malleable computer code and subject to alteration, often in ways that may not be obvious to nontechies. Saudi Arabia, for example, did not give its citizens online access until it had effectively tinkered with the code of the Net to filter out all “objectionable” material. And Iran programmed the chat rooms of its closed online network so that only two people could speak to one another at a time. (Apparently, allowing three people to caucus openly was too threatening.)

Technology design, in short, will be at the heart of various power struggles in the digital age. We should not be surprised to see governments and corporations trying to shape the code of the Net to preserve their authority or profitability. But code is not everything. Even if we could lock in the democratic features of the Internet, the ultimate political impact of this technology (or any other) must be judged on more than design. We must also consider the way a technology is used and the social environment in which it is deployed. Taking all three of these factors into account—design, use, and environment—it should be clear that the Internet may suppress as well as promote democracy.


Freedom of Speech Will Flourish in the Digital Age

Maybe. The Net empowers individual speakers, allowing them to spread their views far and wide with tens of thousands of e-mail newsletters, new formats for music storage online, even 24-hour personal Webcam sites. The political benefits are clear. In 1996, for example, Serbian prodemocracy activists used the Internet to “broadcast” radio programming from Radio B92, a protest station that had been forcefully shut down by President Slobodan Milosevic. Within days of their cybercast, the broadcasts had been heard around the world and international pressure caused Milosevic to reopen the station.

Those who use cutting-edge technology to speak to the world, however, may incur resistance. When Milosevic shut down Radio B92 at the beginning of nato’s 1999 bombing campaign, the station once again re-routed its programming to the Net. But this time, an embattled Milosevic ignored global requests to let the station broadcast freely and placed B92 under puppet management. In China, Lin Hai, a software entrepreneur, received a two-year sentence in January for supplying e-mail addresses to dissidents abroad who published a prodemocracy Web magazine. And in Burma, where all interactive technology is tightly regulated, a supporter of the prodemocracy movement died in prison, where he was being held for using a fax machine without a license.

Those governments were practicing censorship the old-fashioned way: with force. But even without government interference, a new information landscape may emerge that is different from the democratic free-speech tradition we know. The vaunted “marketplace of ideas” presumes a public forum in which an idea can be aired and judged based on its veracity, not the resources behind it. Of course, there have always been different levels of access to this marketplace depending on a speaker’s status and wealth (it helps, for example, when you can afford to buy advertisements to spread your message). But the proliferation of information—and, correspondingly, the proliferation of filtering technology—presents the possibility of a much more cutthroat market for speech. And that will likely mean paying to be heard. In a world where attention is increasingly scarce, the voices of many of the Internet’s early beneficiaries—individuals, nonprofits, and small businesses—may, like the voices of those on ham radio or public-access cable channels, become lost in cyberspace, drowned out by the din of speech that is paid for by the highest bidder.


Governments Cannot Effectively Regulate Cyberspace

Think again. For years, creative cyber-rights advocates have tried to elude draconian state regulation of the Internet by pushing the idea that online interactions occur on some distant frontier beyond the reach of “meatspace” governments. Not only is state regulation of cyberspace illegitimate, they say, it simply cannot be done. As a defense against censorship, it is a clever argument. But for the most part, it is just not true.

In addition to wielding an iron hand, authoritarian nations are increasingly adopting a more sly silicon touch in order to control what their citizens can read and hear online. Filtering software and protocols such as the Platform for Internet Content Selection (which, like barcodes on commercial packaging, standardize labels on Internet content) may make censorship easier than in the predigital era. Instead of confiscating underground books or pamphlets, governments can simply route all Internet communication through electronic gateways known as proxy servers. These powerful computers act as high-tech sieves, sifting out whatever is deemed subversive or offensive. China uses proxy servers to exclude a good deal of foreign content—from dissident sites to, on occasion, the New York Times and cnn. And Singapore requires Internet service providers to use filtering technology to block certain pornographic sites. Of course, there may be ways to evade such machinations, but authoritarian regimes faced with the unfettered flow of digital speech are unlikely to yield easily.

Even liberal Western nations have put blunt Internet regulations in place and pursued logic-defying prosecutions. In 1997, for example, the German state of Bavaria prosecuted Felix Somm, the local head of the online service Compuserve, because a Compuserve subscriber used the service to obtain illegal pornographic materials. Compuserve did not produce the materials and neither Somm nor any other company representative had reason to know how that one subscriber was using the service. Nevertheless, Somm himself was found guilty of trafficking in pornography. The United States has been particularly aggressive in controlling the development and export of encryption. The U.S. government has flexed its regulatory muscle in a variety of ways, imposing trade restrictions, pushing legislation, and pressuring industry to embrace the Clipper Chip, a weak encryption standard. Until late in 1996, the Clinton administration actually classified strong encryption as a munition, making it a crime to send or carry it out of the country (export is still forbidden, only now the Department of Commerce is in charge). Washington has also tried, with less success, to regulate sexual materials online. In 1997, the Supreme Court struck down the Communications Decency Act, a speech restriction so vague that a person who published common obscenities on the Web could have been imprisoned. Undeterred, Congress went back to the drawing board and enacted the Child Online Protection Act, a more subtle attempt to curb cybersmut that has nonetheless been enjoined by a federal court.

From content control and privacy to intellectual property, electronic commerce, and the y2k problem, legislators at the state, national, and international levels are becoming intricately involved in setting digital policy. With more than 200 Internet-related bills considered during the 105th U.S. Congress alone, the idea that government cannot control the Internet has become pretty laughable. Of course, not all regulation is bad regulation. The European Union has implemented a directive on information privacy that sets strict limits on the collection and use of personal data (limits that have left U.S. privacy protection looking threadbare by comparison and nearly launched a transatlantic trade war, as the directive limits information transfer to noncompliant countries such as the United States). The real question, therefore, is whether lawmakers will regulate wisely and deftly or anxiously and incompetently.


“On the Internet, No One Knows You’re A Dog” (Which Is One Reason Government Cannot Regulate)

Not for long. A New Yorker cartoon featuring a canine computer user provided that endearing slogan for an important digital-age concept: On the Internet you can hide your real identity. It is a major reason people think that government cannot regulate online behavior. After all, how would the police know who you are? Identification technologies are quickly arriving, though, that will challenge the presumption of online anonymity.

In many ways, these technologies could prove useful. Digital certificates will allow consumers to embed verified information about themselves in their Web browser—their age, state of residence, and so on. As individuals navigate the online world, their browsers will share this data with other computers. This arrangement should facilitate government aims (for example, permitting only adults to visit gambling or pornographic sites), business goals (reducing fraud and piracy by allowing companies to identify authorized users of proprietary information or restricted services), and consumer interests (giving people, say, a discount at certain Web-based shops).

Ideally, digital certificates should be designed so that users can determine what aspects of their profiles are disclosed at any time. In reality, however, vendors may not be satisfied with getting only a limited amount of data. For marketing purposes, they may want to learn your e-mail address, your zip code, your name, even your income. And though you may not want to divulge all that information, the ability to collect it is increasingly being built into the code of the Net itself. Each new Intel Pentium III chip, for example, contains a distinct serial number that can be used to identify a specific computer user on the Internet. The same is true for Microsoft’s Windows operating system, each copy of which contains a unique identifier that can be linked, through purchase records, to a specific person. Although both companies have pledged to protect users’ privacy, it is not hard to see how these kinds of hard-wired identifiers could do away with online anonymity—and make it much easier for government and others to monitor who is doing what online.


New Technology Will Create a Digital Divide Between Information Haves and Have-Nots

Yes and no. Discrepancies in basic access to the Internet will exist on a global scale. In scores of nations around the world, a basic telecommunications infrastructure hardly exists. One African official reports that there are more phone lines in Manhattan than in all of sub-Saharan Africa. Sadly, information inequality will likely be yet one more division between the world’s poor and rich.

Within the developed world, the disparities will be different. Telephone and television penetration rates are uniformly high in the United States and Europe, and the number of Americans on the Net has roughly tripled in the last three years. Net access will be increasingly easy to come by in wealthy nations as computer prices fall, as schools and libraries become wired, and particularly as the Net and digital television are integrated in the years to come (already, Net access via TV is available in Canada, Japan, and the United States for a few hundred dollars). Of course, as digital literacy and economic well-being become intertwined, technology-related inequalities will remain. In the developed world, though, the ability to afford a Net connection will probably not be one of them. Rather, the issue will be what a person can do once he or she is online—a discrepancy that has more to do with basic educational skills than available technology.


Information Wants to Be Free

It does? This popular cybermaxim derives from a claim by Internet guru Stewart Brand in his 1987 book, The Media Lab: “Information wants to be free because it has become so cheap to distribute, copy and recombine. . . . It wants to be expensive because it can be immeasurably valuable to the recipient.” There is a degree of truth to both of Brand’s statements. Observers of all stripes have noted that copyright law will no longer work because the Internet and other digital tools bear a striking resemblance to a giant copying machine, allowing software, video, music, and text to be pirated with the push of a button. Yet, at the same time, as information becomes the coin of the global realm, powerful actors are devising ever more ingenious ways to lock it up and charge for it.

Most notably, the entertainment, publishing, and software industries—with the help of allies in legislatures and international bodies such as the World Intellectual Property Organization—have been developing new ways to protect their intangible assets. These “copyright maximalists,” as law professor Pamela Samuelson calls them, have pushed for unprecedented statutory protection for databases (collections of facts not protected by copyright law, which covers only original expression). And they have worked to create technological protection measures that could, again, be more favorable to owners than traditional intellectual-property statutes. These innovations include the ubiquitous clickwrap contracts that are found online—fine-print agreements “signed” by clicking an Okay button—as well as “trusted systems” technology, which regulates how digital information is used: how many times it can be viewed, whether it can be duplicated, and so on. In a sense, it is intellectual-property protection without the need for cops and courts.

What is missing from these efforts—and from Brand’s aphorism—is the notion that information needs to be protected in the public interest. Copyright law, after all, is not just about safeguarding the property of authors (or, more realistically, megapublishers). It is about striking a delicate constitutional balance between providing incentives for creativity and making valuable works available to the public. Innovations such as database protection, clickwrap contracts, and trusted systems could, if not carefully limited by legislatures and courts, tip the balance too far toward information owners. The public domain would shrivel up, to society’s disadvantage. The international legal community must figure out how to apply the principles of balance that underlie existing intellectual-property laws to the digital world.


The Internet Is Making Middlemen Irrelevant

Hardly. At least two things are happening to commercial intermediaries because of the Internet. First, new digital intermediaries are arising to provide services that never existed before. PriceScan, for instance, compares product prices at different Web stores. And the online auction site eBay lets users run a digital garage sale. Second, many traditional middlemen in sales and information-related businesses are finding themselves displaced by new online intermediaries—companies such as, Travelocity, Wit Capital, and Chemdex, (a Web-based “infomediary” that is turning the global chemical-supply industry inside out). In neither case have middlemen become irrelevant. In the first case, it is obvious why middlemen matter: They have much to do with what is innovative about the Internet. In the second case, the new intermediaries are roiling markets, forcing out companies that can no longer add value to transactions.

There is reason to be concerned about the economic and social impact of the “friction-free” commerce that the displacement of traditional middlemen is supposed to bring. Microsoft boss Bill Gates describes the new commerce of the Net as a “shopper’s heaven.” And it will certainly be celestial for Gates and Microsoft: They are now in auto sales, real estate, and travel, among other businesses. Yet, traditional middlemen are key to the health of local economies. If they are routinely circumvented in favor of online vendors, the economic effect on communities (particularly low-income, urban communities) could be devastating. Businesses would fold. Companies would lay off employees. And local tax bases would diminish. The National Governors’ Association predicts electronic commerce will cause a $12 billion loss in sales tax revenue in the United States by 2001, leaving less money for schools and law enforcement. Hardly a shopper’s heaven—and reason to think again about blithe celebration of the demise of traditional middlemen.


The Internet Is Redefining International Diplomacy

Perhaps. Although the Net is not inherently democratizing, in some instances it does seem to be causing political and social hierarchies to unravel, gradually transferring power from massive, entrenched institutions down toward the level of nonprofits, communities, and even individuals. As a result, fields such as international relations may become more egalitarian, as small nongovernmental organizations find themselves on more equal footing with states and multinational corporations. Human rights groups, for example, may find that they can use the Net to garner attention instantly and internationally, embarrassing rights abusers into ceasing brutal practices. At the same time, relief organizations may be able to harness the speed and depth of the Net to increase the efficiency and impact of their efforts.

In the near future, however, international politics will still largely take place within the existing frameworks of negotiation and decision making. And again, much will depend on whether powerful actors resist the democratic potential of the Net by trying to regulate its code. Encryption, for example, the technology that allows communications to be scrambled and kept private, is a vital tool of human rights work; it allows field workers to collect, transmit, and store communications in a way that does not compromise the safety of victims and witnesses. If governments outlaw or restrict strong encryption, human rights workers—and their clients—will be deprived of an important digital asset, one that would help them to take on corrupt powers.


The Internet Will Enhance Cross-Cultural Understanding and Empathy

Not necessarily. Four decades ago, social scientist Daniel Lerner argued that the introduction of mass media into developing countries allows for a broadening of empathy. Radio, television, and newspapers, in other words, can educate citizens and encourage them to care about the plight of fellow community members. For all their other failings, mass media can help to cultivate a sense of common identity and unity across broad distances.

Similarly, if we were to use the Net to open ourselves up to new social and cultural experiences, we could do wonders for cooperation and mutual understanding at the local, national, and international levels. But the ability the Net gives us to endlessly filter and personalize information means that, more than ever before, we can also build virtual gated communities where we never have to interact with people who are different from ourselves. Will people actually be inclined to narrow their horizons this way? One would hope not. Unfortunately, theories of social psychology such as selective avoidance suggest that many people may be inclined to use their new power over information to reinforce existing political beliefs rather than to challenge themselves. We could lose our “agora in the media,” as communications scholar Ithiel de Sola Pool called it.

If this happens, communal conversations could be cut up into an endless number of isolated exchanges. Local activists would have difficulty competing with virtual communities for the attention of their neighbors. Nations might have difficulty resolving complex issues such as abortion or immigration when citizens can opt out of a shared base of information so easily. And citizens might feel less of a connection with, and less of an obligation toward, one another. Indeed, as national boundaries become increasingly permeable and irrelevant to networked life, individuals will have less incentive even to identify themselves as citizens of a certain country. Without a sense of national community, individuals may increasingly vote according to narrow self-interest rather than support policies that protect the common good.

Even as the global nature of the Net promises to let us shrink the world, compromise between different nations and peoples may be more difficult if we replace fading national borders with new ones based on prejudice or self-indulgent preference. “In the worst case scenario,” as political commentator E.J. Dionne puts it, “the global village becomes a global Bosnia. . . .”


The Internet Will Foster the Growth of Global Capitalism

True (but beware). New communications technology should allow the march of free market capitalism to continue to those few parts of the world that have not fully embraced it. Notwithstanding the efforts of some governments to restrict political expression, markets will increasingly be lubricated by better information about price, selection, and quality. Search and transaction costs should decrease and efficiencies should be gleaned by consumers and firms alike.

But the dazzling combination of technology and commerce can have a blinding effect, causing otherwise sensible people to lose sight of the limits of market values. Some champions of the so-called New Economy—postindustrial, information-driven, high-octane capitalism that will supposedly spawn an unprecedented global boom—have done away not just with traditional economic measurements, such as price-earnings ratios for Internet start-ups, but basic common sense. Their predictions about the end of poverty, the wonders of industry “self-ordering” (read: extreme deregulation), free bandwidth, and the like are compelling at first glance. But upon close scrutiny, they are difficult to take seriously. More often than not, they obscure the simple truth that government must be a key actor in our turbulent age of change. The state needs to take the lead role in safeguarding democratic values, protecting consumers, and setting the ground rules for commercial activity. And in those regions where governments are inclined to allow for free markets but not free minds, the international community must commit to nurturing real open societies.

In liberal democracies such as the United States, lawmakers must also be careful about relying excessively on market-based solutions to social problems. For instance, despite American industry’s promises over the last few years to protect consumer privacy through a mix of self-regulation and the development of Web-based tools that would allow consumers to set privacy preferences online, privacy remains woefully unprotected in the United States. It is time to admit that we need some good old-fashioned laws and regulations to establish a privacy baseline and make consumers feel secure online.


War Games?

Infographic: The Internet  Shockwave



Andrew L. Shapiro’s The Control Revolution (New York: Public Affiars, 1999)

James Boyle’s Shamans, Software, and Spleens: Law and the Construction of the Information Society (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996)

Ithiel de Sola Pool’s Technologies of Freedom (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1983)

Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyons’ Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996)

Stephen Kobrin’s “The MAI and the Clash of Globalizations,” (Foreign Policy, Fall 1998)

Steven Miller’s Civilizing Cyberspace: Policy, Power, and the Information Superhighway (Reading: Addison-Wesley, 1996)

Neil Postman’s Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992)

David Shenk’s Data Smog: Surviving the Information Glut (New York: HarperCollins, 1997)

Langdon Winner’s The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986)



*: Andrew L. Shapiro ( is director of the Aspen Institute Internet Policy Project and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School. He is author of The Control Revolution (New York: PublicAffairs, 1999), a Century Foundation book from which some of this article is adapted.  Back.