Are we all better off in a world where the Internet does not affect states’ control of what happens inside their borders?

The issue of regulating internet content is highly significant, given the exponential growth in the use of this medium for commercial and informational purposes. When the internet was thrown open for commercial use during the mid 1990s, most of its content originated from the United States of America, making English the dominant language in the Internet. This phenomenon was a reflection of the fact that the content was directed at a universal audience located across geo-political borders. But, gradually, the complexion of the Internet undertook a process of change, making its content more relevant to local political and cultural conditions. The flip side of this localization is that the Internet is no longer the vehicle of free-speech and expression that it once was. Jack Goldsmith and Timothy Wu argue in their book ‘Who Controls the Internet? Illusions of a Borderless World’ that this transformation of the cyberspace is for the better, where as Milton Mueller disagree with this view. Both sides have strong and weak points in support of their positions. The rest of this essay will evaluate the merit of these arguments in an attempt to choose between these two positions.

The scholar team of Goldsmith and Wu has to be credited for disillusioning a few myths associated with the internet. They show, through empirical evidence, how the content in the Internet can be successfully controlled. A particular case they peruse in support of their argument is the drastic concessions that Yahoo Inc. was compelled to make to facilitate enforcement of local laws. Goldsmith and Wu suggest that if local laws are not enforced through the Internet, the service providers may be forced to adopt the most stringent among them in an effort to breach none. But, this is only hypothetical and it is equally likely that the most liberal (the least restrictive) among the set of national laws would be chosen. In fact, during the last few years of the twentieth century, when the Internet was growing and consolidating, it was at its most liberal and least regulated. This period saw the rise of several progressive movements for social change that availed of the Internet’s potential to organize people at the grassroots and promulgate their cause. A classic example is the success of World Social Forum (WSF), an annual event organized by nations in the global south to discuss political reform and social progress. The Internet has had an important role in bringing these scattered communities across the Third World together. In the work of Goldsmith and Wu, Positive outcomes of the unregulated Internet such as the WSF are conspicuous by their absence. While the authors cite several examples of how the unregulated Internet undermines governmental authority, they have not paid requisite attention to the other beneficial effects of the free Internet. This drawback is pointed out by Milton Mueller in his polemical essay.

The case of Chinese government’s control over Internet content in the country is cited by Goldsmith and Wu to support their thesis that national borders have survived in the virtual world. What they fail to mention how it is through the same medium of communication that exiled Tibetans have organized their protests and demonstrations against the authoritarianism of the Communist Party in China. In the lead up to the Olympic Games in Beijing earlier this year, the Chinese authorities had a tough time dealing with the Tibetan protesters. The power of new digital technology to facilitate legitimate political dissent is something that needs to be preserved and encouraged. Irrespective of the fact that Tibet had traditionally been a feudal society ridden with oppression and brutality, neutral political commentators across the world agree that the Tibetan fight for liberation from China is not unreasonable. If a small group of exiled Tibetans can make such valid political statements, the inclusion of Tibetans still residing in the plateau in this process might have led to substantial political changes. Hence, Goldsmith and Wu have left out this most impressive example of what a free Internet can do to social justice and democracy.

Further, the issues of national sovereignty and commercial opportunity are intertwined. In other words, while large Internet portals such as Yahoo and Google might have submitted to the impositions laid by national governments, their profits have shot up as a result of the new opportunities for advertisement it has opened up. Using the same technology that filters out unlawful content from geo-political entities, the websites can display advertisements targeted more relevant and more localized to the users. In essence, companies such as Yahoo and Google don’t care an iota about freedom of speech and democracy, as long as their revenues remain impressive. Such profiteering attitude is ethically very shallow and does not project the concept of “digital borders” in good light. Hence, this one-sided view of Internet censorship on part of Goldsmith and Wu weakens their central thesis.

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