Will the Internet Fragment? by Milton Mueller

Reviewed by Norrie Sanders

Nearly four billion people – about half of the world’s population – reportedly use the Internet. The vast majority of the planet’s telecommunicated information is via the Internet.

Whether we admit to addiction or not, many of us are utterly dependent on it. How many of us could let a day pass without on-line shopping, researching or social networking? Even the old fashioned telephone call is often Internet-mediated. The Internet helps to simplify our lives – emailing instead of writing letters, banking from home instead of finding an open Branch, and Wikipedia instead of a wall full of books in a library.

The world of the Internet that most of us inhabit is, however,  not Milton Mueller’s target.  The world that he exposes is much more complex and goes to the heart of the structure and governance of the Internet. Welcome to the hidden world behind the Internet.

We hear daily about threats to this global system – Russian hackers, government censorship, dark webs, criminal activity and Nigerian scams, to name a few.  We also hear – though perhaps less stridently, that the Internet is in danger of breaking up into smaller segments – “fragmenting”, in the jargon. Governments, commercial and new technologies are all possible sources of this potential catastrophe.

Professor Mueller dismisses the threat of fragmentation in the first few pages. In doing so, he summarily answers the question posed in the book title. Just as we sigh with relief that we will still be able to buy Chinese batteries from ebay tomorrow, he then slams us with a much bigger threat –
“alignment”. Though normally a word associated with good rather than evil, alignment in the Internet jargon means powerful national governments bringing the Internet under their sovereign control.

For those of us struggling to understand how the Internet is managed, Mueller’s distinction between fragmentation and alignment might seem esoteric. In fact, it is profound.

 “The problem of alignment is the core Internet governance issue of our time. It is the arena for a world-historic struggle between established institutions. Of communications governance and the new societal capacity created by globally networked digital devices. This struggle will continue for another two decades, at least.”

Hyperbolic? Perhaps. But later his forensic analysis supports the conclusions. Indeed, two decades appears optimistic given the nature of the struggle. The existing Internet system of Governance is a complex and somewhat ad hoc combination of commercial, technical, consumer and government players, working co-operatively through a range of multistakeholder mechanisms. Any reform necessarily will be co-operative and prolonged.

This short book spends the first half on fragmentation and why it is, at worst, a minor threat. The second half analyses alignment and the final chapter offers a possibly remedy – “Popular Sovereignty in Cyberspace”. The analysis of these concepts – whilst liberally sprinkled with acronyms and jargon – is enlightening. The text establishes how subtle some of the real threats are and how easily they can be spin doctored to become euphemistic or even meaningless.

The more sanguine sentiments of the final chapter are essentially that interfering governments can be marginalised through an “Internet nation” comprised of “a transnational community that identifies with the autonomy and freedom of the Internet” which is “brought together..…by multistakeholder institutions”.

An Internet nation could sound hopelessly Utopian, were it not for the fact that for the past nearly 30 years, the Internet has thrived without a singular governance model.  The wonder of the Internet is not so much that it is under threat, but the fact that it was born at all and is now a healthy adolescent. There are so many vested interests that it continues to amaze that neither Google nor government has managed to totally subvert it.

The more I read this book, the more the Internet seemed to mimic a living creature. Mind-numbingly complex and ever-evolving; but able to function and self-regulate without needing sovereign government.

“The value of the Internet is not based primarily on national or territorial interests but on the interests of a wider public that has forged social connections, economic ties and political alliances in a globalized cyberspace”

Milton Mueller is impeccably credentialed for assembling this monograph. He is a Professor in the School of Public Policy at the Georgia Institute of Technology and co-founder and co-director of the Internet Governance Project (IGP). He has written seven books and numerous journal articles, including two “acclaimed scholarly” books on Internet governance in 2010 and 2012. Professor Mueller and the IGP have been closely involved with many of the organisations that are integral components of Internet governance.

The analysis is brief and largely non-numeric, but still creates a compelling argument. For those readers among the four billion users who are non-experts, we are forced to rely on the author’s credibility and logic, because so many of the concepts, organisations and protocols are unfamiliar. When Mueller asserts that China’s 2012 proposal to change the Domain Name System “is seemingly innocuous” but would have “enormous” ramifications for “trade and competition”, then I, for one, am convinced. The crafting of the book and Mueller’s obvious knowledge of the topic, combine to produce a consistent narrative that largely compensates for lack of empirical evidence. Given the shadowy and somewhat sinister nature of the alignment threat, perhaps it is unfair to expect too many governments to supply their metrics.

Text on the book’s rear cover suggests that this reviewer is not amongst the target readership. Despite that, I found it an enlightening and intellectually challenging read which will serve me well when a member of the Internet genre hits my desk again.

 Will the Internet Fragment? 

(2017)

by  Milton Mueller

Polity

ISBN: 978-1-5095-0122-9

151 pages; $24.95

 

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