Who controls the Internet? A book review

Who controls the Internet?With my book out the way, I now have lots more time to, er, read books. And one of those near the top of the pile was Who controls the [tag]Internet[/tag]? by Jack [tag]Goldsmith[/tag] and Tim [tag]Wu[/tag]. The book has frequently cropped up in conversations with various Net people since it was published in March, and so I have been itching to read it.

I finished it this morning. And my gut feeling is that this is a very important book. Not only does it cover a big hole in knowledge and understanding of the Internet, but it is also well written, easy to understand, concise, coherent and thoughtful. I strongly suspect it will be ones of those books that informs opinion and so has a lasting, global influence far beyond what you could expect from 226 pages of text.

Being a journalist and knowing a thing or two about the subject though, I also have a number of criticisms. It has a dangerous US bias despite its avowed international outlook, it completely misses a fundamental plank of Internet governance, namely [tag]ICANN[/tag], and it has missed recent changes that will come back to haunt it.

But first of all, let me say that I think this book should be read by everyone that has an interest in Internet matters. In fact, I would argue it should be a text for students not only of the Internet but also international law, relations and politics and perhaps even the more pragmatic end of philosophy.

Buy it from Amazon.co.uk, or Amazon.com or if you’re like me, pop into the Oxford University Press shop on Oxford High Street to get it.


Why the big sell? Because it tells the story of the Internet in a simple, interesting and relevant way. Obviously not the full Internet story. But what it does manage is not to get bogged down, and – something that books from the academic community consistently fail to do – uses real-people examples to make wider points accessible and understandable. In fact, the book is journalistic in its style – something that the authors could very likely view as criticism but is fervently meant as praise.

What immediately struck me was how far the authors – [tag]Jack Goldsmith[/tag], professor of law at [tag]Harvard[/tag] and a former high-ranking government lawyer, and [tag]Tim Wu[/tag], professor of law at [tag]Columbia[/tag] Law School – had dived into the extraordinarily deep well of Internet experience.

I struggle to think of one important, precedent-setting example of how the Internet has affected society that has been missed by Goldsmith and Wu. I was immediately impressed that they had discovered and researched A Rape in Cyberspace, a 1993 article in Village Voice by Julian Dibbell. The article was I think probably the first that opened up alot of people’s minds to what this Internet thing might become, why it was so different to what had gone before. It was the rallying text for a hippie style of thought over cyberspace – one that was unique but has largely fallen under the feet of a pragmatic human race, much as the hippy philosophy did in the 60s. As soon as A Rape in Cyberspace turned up in this book, however, it was obvious that the authors had grasped some of the more intangible, and less legal, elements of the Internet.

Telling it how it is

It gave the Yahoo Nazi case (where Yahoo was forced to block access to Nazi memorabilia on its US website for French Internet users) the focus and importance it deserves. Even though it didn’t dig into the cases themselves, by mentioning Barcelona.com and JK Rowling (two remarkable examples of disputes over ownership of particular domains), it was clear that Goldsmith and Wu had researched far beyond what appears in the book. And this research has lent an indefinable weight to the book which in turns encourages trust in the threads it draws and the conclusions it reaches.

What are those conclusions?

Very broadly, the main argument is that the Internet is a medium like any other and as a result, national governments and national laws *will* have their way with it. And the lesson to learn is that this is not necessarily a bad thing.

This of course flies in the face of the majority of Internet culture and thinking up to this point, but it comes at an absolutely crucial point in the history of the Internet – a point where the lines of future government control and influence are being drawing up through the United Nations. By pointing out the big lies (that were always there) about governments not being able to control content or interaction over the Internet, and by doing it in a non-aggressive or preachy way, this book could well be the appeasing text between government and technologists that helps both sides understand why the other has a point.

It puts an end to the lie that it is only China or Saudi Arabia that are evil filterers of Internet content by pointing out that Google constantly filters information within the United States. It shows the full range of greys in freedom of speech, albeit with China in the dark grey area. It makes entirely commonsense arguments about people’s sovereignty and cultures, but arguments that nonetheless aren’t heard or understood in the West, leading to the peculiarly American Internet fantasy that the Internet will somehow bring US-style freedom and democracy to the rest of world simply by existing. It won’t, it was never going to, get over it, is what the book effectively says, although in far more diplomatic and fair language.

America, America

And here of course I have strayed into the great dangerous America issue. It is particularly unfortunate for the Internet that the United States of America has embarked on an extraordinary and frequently baffling period of confused nationalism at a time where it still retains control of the Internet in so many ways.

In fact, while Goldsmith and Wu never answer the question that is the title of the book – who controls the Internet – the answer is written right through the book. The answer is America.

Despite a brilliant summary of different scenarios across the world, and despite its avowed international perspective, the book comes with a very strong US bias, and that invariably means big business. The examples are all how changes in the Internet have affected US interests. The French government/courts decides against Yahoo; the Australian government/courts decides against the Wall Street Journal; the Indian government/courts decides against eBay.

The book tackles the social conceits and fantasies borne through the early US-centric view of the Internet but it doesn’t stretch beyond that to look back the other way, to see what the rest of the world is doing with the Internet. The one exception to this is a brilliant and perceptive rundown of China’s approach to the Internet. Yes, China has built an enormous and highly sophisticated fltering mechanism for its Internet, but that hasn’t stopped an explosion in its use – and its uses. Many Chinese now have a everyday grasp of technology that puts everyone else – including the West – to shame. But even though the book still views China through the eyes of someone longing for American values, it recognises that different systems have different advantages and disadvantages.

Of course, in some senses it is an unfair criticism of the book to say it is too US-centric because it is that very approach that makes the book so powerful. America is in control of the Internet right now, and it has to be persuaded to slowly take its hands off the reins to prevent the rest of the world going their own direction. As such, a book like this, which intelligently and carefully points out the realities of the Net to Americans could be a vital tool in expanding understanding and knowledge in an increasingly polarised society. That is why [tag]Who controls the Internet[/tag]? could well become an historic and defining text.


But this US perspective, and its academic roots, does result in one glaring and ironic omission. And that is the Internet Corporation For Assigned Names and Numbers, known as ICANN.

There is a strange cabal of US academic thinking at the moment that ICANN is not relevant to what goes on on the Internet. Despite being a not-for-profit US company based in California that oversees the Internet’s main directory and decides policy for domain names, and a company that is ultimately owned and run by the US government, American academics – with the exception of Milton [tag]Mueller[/tag] – have effectively given up on ICANN.

The theory is that ICANN is no more than a symbol of power – the king’s golden crown – which governments fight over while failing to realise that the real influence of the Internet is what goes on over the Internet. You don’t get excited about who runs the telephone system, so while ICANN is currently in the midst of an international power struggle, it will eventually just become an exchange system and so is not worth concentrating on.

I think this is startlingly short-sighted and academia will come to regret it. Despite covering every other element of Internet control, possibly the most significant and certainly the most controversial area of it is given only four pages in Who controls the Internet? It is so concise, it reads like a Wikipedia article.

It is extraordinary that so many intelligent and imaginative minds cannot see why this organisation will become fundamental to the future of the Internet. There are frequent high-flying essays at the moment over how the domain name system (DNS) will become increasingly irrelevant. For one, programs like Bittorrent ride on the Internet, rather than use the [tag]DNS[/tag] per se. And secondly, search engines like Google mean that domain names themselves aren’t important – what’s important is content.

Failing to learn the lessons

When I hear this I hear overpowering echoes of the earlier philosophies that this book does so much to dispel. The Internet was going to override all governments and laws, the cyberspace pioneers predicted. Rubbish, says this book. The Internet will make it impossible to restrict free expression, was the argument. Sorry, already happening, the book points out.

I say the same to those who argue that the DNS is going to be irrelevant. It is foggy thinking. While you are using Google to undermine the DNS – where do you go? Google.com. How do you find bittorrent files? You go to a website – located by its DNS – to find links to them. There simply isn’t another self-reliant system that run on the Internet outside the DNS.

But more than that – what do people will think will happen when more and more top-level domains are introduced (as they are going to be)? People point to the poor take-up of new top-level domains such as .info or .biz but this is again ludicrously shortsighted. New top-level domains will give people the opportunity to devise new ways of using the Internet **run over a TLD**. For example, the mobile phone companies now own .mobi. They now have their own chunk of the domain name system that they can run entirely differently to what we are used to. They could, for example, write new code that links directly with the next generation of mobile phones: no need to use the browser system we have grown used to. It could well become the mobile Internet because with your own entry into the DNS, you don’t have to follow the same philosophies as defined by the dotcom model.

The huge growth at the moment is in sites like MySpace (note: found at myspace.com). But it isn’t your space, is it? It’s space that a company at MySpace.com gives you because people don’t know who to set up their own websites. Is it possible to give everyone their own actual space? Theoretically yes – but only through the DNS.

And who decides not only who runs these top-level domains, but also how the DNS is used and what new top-level domains are allowed to exist? ICANN.

The other glaring area of importance is IP addresses. Even if you assume that the DNS will become only one of many Internet uses, I have yet to hear anyone argue that they can do without IP addresses. And who is in charge of allocating IP addresses? Who defines the policy surrounding IP addresses? ICANN.


ICANN is stood right in the middle of the future possibilities of the Internet and yet most of the people telling grand tales of barbie dolls and new ways of communicating have failed to see what is right in front of their face. The control point – and potential choke-point – that is ICANN.

There is another very important element of ICANN as well that is frequently missed by Internet commentators. The idea is that ICANN is just something for governments to squabble over. And yet, if Who controls the Internet? tells us anything it is that, no matter how much you believe you don’t want to mix with governments, you do not have a choice. Governments *will* define how the Internet works in future whether you like it or not.

So, rather than ignore the one organisation that everyone is fighting over, it should be obvious that this is the organisation that needs to be focussed on, because whatever happens to it will have far-reaching effects across the world and billowing into the future.

What I see as the failure of Goldsmith and Wu to properly research this area – led, I am certain, because of a deliberate decision by the US academic community reviewing the Internet to give ICANN a miss – has also led to them missing a fundamental change in the control not only of the Internet but also of a wider power shift in society itself.

What has come out of the ICANN model and the numerous battles fought, and continuing to be fought, has been a new model of power-sharing and decision-making that could well change society as a whole. Anyone that has been following Internet Governance issues will immediately recognise it in the endlessly repeated phrase “multi-stakeholder”.

The future of control?

Put simply, governments have realised that business and civil society are vitally important as almost-equal partners in dealing with the Internet. Governments have learnt very slowly through the course of the World Summit on the Information Society process that not only do they not have the answers to many of the problems they wish to solve but that unless they listen to business and civil society their solutions will not be effective. In short, governments needs other people to be able to do what they want. Legislation is often too slow and ineffective in a highly flexible Net environment.

It is a remarkable change that led to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan himself pointing out that the Tunisia World Summit was the first to ever welcome in non-governments as almost-equal partners. The United Nations men most at the heart of the Internet Governance issue, Markus Kummer and Nitin Desai have frequently commented on how different the government interaction is over the Internet. And the Internet Governance Forum, given no more than a sentence in Goldsmith and Wu’s book, is an experiment that, if it works, could see the philosophy of multi-stakeholder meetings take root right across government, right across the world.

The lasting legacy of the Internet could be that societal control – something that this book so clearly demonstrates cannot be removed or wished away (nor should it be) – becomes the territory of not solely government, but a blend of government, business and civil society, with government given the casting vote.

Now, this is very unsettled waters and of course it is my philosophy at a time when the IGF hasn’t even been held, so you can hardly blame Goldsmith and Wu for not loosening up their taut, concise and persuasive approach to include the very wishy-washy spaced-out philosophy that they do so much to pull apart, but I do believe the failure to properly review ICANN in this book is its Achilles Heel, and hope it is corrected in what I’m sure will be future editions to make this a classic text.

That said, it is by far my favourite book about the Internet (exempting my Sex.com book which is tastier in parts, but isn’t published yet), and I implore everyone to buy it and read it. It gives great clarity in what is frequently a confusing and emotive sphere of modern life.


Update (18 Sep): I’ve been looking for other reviews of the book and have eventually stumbled over two good ones, following a series of poor ones. Both come from Syracuse University, one from Milton Mueller, an Internet governance expert, and the other from John Mathiason, the university international relations professor.

I’d say that Mueller and I are broadly of the same mind, although he makes some stronger critical points [pdf] about the presumption that national governments as is will take control of the Net. His is also a more scholarly review.

Mathiason provides a much more knowledgeable version [pdf] of my complaint about the book’s US centricity, pointing out basically that Goldsmith and Wu don’t seem to understand how the rest of the world works. I only have the reviews as pdfs I’m afraid.

  1. This reveiw is extremely excellent and thoughtful. In fact it brought up points about this book that I hadn’t fully thought through, showing that readers can catch more than the writers.

    A response to the claims of US-centrism or bias. I guess I think those claims are fair — but I also think the story of the first decade of the internet’s history is mainly a US story, and that your answer to the question of “Who Controls the INternet” was, mostly right.

    But the US-centric point misses our big picture argument — that, as of 2006, the US is slowly losing its grip, and needs to fight to retain power over what was once obviously its creature. As the conclusion suggested, we see more and more issues that were once issues of domestic US law are becoming international power struggles — the future of the IANA and root zone file among them.

    It is true that, were re-writing the book or a sequel, I might put in more about ccTLDs.. and perhaps chapters about how the internet grew up in Europe, Japan, India or other places. In this book we were interested in the heart of the story of the last ten years — internet utopianism, US control, and the slow beginnings of the erosion of that world.

    But anyhow, the comments and criticisms are appreciated,

    Tim Wu

  2. I think you’re right – the Internet was mostly a US medium until just a few years ago. Perhaps its fortunate that you wrote and got this book out before things start changing massively.

    What I would be interested in reading about however is Germany’s .de story. Second biggest TLD in existence with 10 million domains – there’s undeniably some lessons in there. I also think that Nominet here in the UK has some unique and interesting elements of control, particular its domain resolution service and its member model.

    And then the whole issue of government control over the Internet has its most colourful spectrum in ccTLDs – everything from the African states’ strange approach to the Tuvalus selling their TLDs. There’s a book in that (there was an interesting book in 1993 that covered the stories behind some ccTLDs called Addressing the World by Erica Schlesinger Wass).

    But then any book on the Internet is going to be incredibly difficult and I think yours is the best of the bunch so far. I really enjoyed reading it.


  3. Whio Controls the Internet (link to book review)…

    Looks like an excellent book: Who controls the Internet? A book review at kierenmccarthy.co.uk……

  4. Of course I don’t mean 1993 – I mean 2003. Early morning idiocy.


  5. […] So this being my web page I can post review of our book (”Who Controls the Internet”), by writer Kirerren McCarthy, that was both generous and thoughtful.  While critical in parts, it got what the book was trying to get at … “I finished it this morning. And my gut feeling is that this is a very important book. Not only does it cover a big hole in knowledge and understanding of the Internet, but it is also well written, easy to understand, concise, coherent and thoughtful. I strongly suspect it will be ones of those books that informs opinion and so has a lasting, global influence far beyond what you could expect from 226 pages of text. … […]

  6. i have to write a report on this book for my university sociology course.. and i have no where to start!!

  7. I can’t help you out without more information to go on that that I’m afraid Aimee.

    How long you got? And what specifically is the report supposed to cover? The most interesting aspect of the book, at least to my mind, is how it simply demonstrates that the odd fantasy that somehow the Net would make all previous systems obsolete was no more than that: a fantasy.

    Governments aren’t going to accept that the Internet exists in some special world and is untouchable. What is really interesting though is that the Internet is changing government itself, just as it is revolutionising all other aspects of our societies. Look at the e-gov plans going ahead. Why? Because the Internet can make governing simpler, cheaper, faster.

    It’s all because of the ability to share information.


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