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Global Civil Society6

Global Civil Society6

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Published by: northerndisclosure on Feb 06, 2010
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John Naughton
he Internet offers powerful facilities for groupsand organisations operating outside con-ventional power structures. It does this bychanging the economics and logistics of informationand communication. Civil society institutions were‘early adopters’ of the Internet and are successfullyand intensively using the network to further theirgoals and conduct their activities. This is notsurprising given the libertarian ethos of the Net andits decentralised architecture.However, the extent to which the Internet is beingharnessed for civil society purposes is uneven. Insome cases the potential of the medium has not beenrealised because of inequalities in access—particularlythe digital divide measured in social, economic,andeducational terms—government regulation orcensorship, and aggressive corporate action.We are in a transition phase in which establishedpower structures are catching up with the libertarianand centripetal characteristics of the Net. In manycases civil society’s uses of the network have beenmore imaginative than those of traditional insti-tutions. But the old order is wising up. Aspects of Internet activity that only four years ago were re-garded as intrinsically incapable of being regulated—for example, copyright and defamation—are rapidlybeing brought within the scope of national legalsystems. New regulatory regimes which areintrinsically more intrusive are being implemented bylegislatures across the globe, ostensibly to addressthe new challenges presented by the Internet but inmany cases as a response to pressures from corporatelobbies and security services. And the evolution of theInternet into a mass medium has made it morevulnerable to government and corporate control.Many of the features of the Internet which makeit particularly conducive to civil society uses are aproduct of the network’s technological architecture.But if the underlying architecture were to change, itsusefulness to civil society might be reduced. There aregood reasons to suppose that the rapid developmentof e-business poses a major threat to online freedomsbecause online commerce requires modification of the existing ‘permissive’ architecture in ways thatwill make it a more controlled space. It is importantthat civil society recognises the nature and extent of this threat, and that civil society groups formulatepolicies and initiatives to address it.
At the same time, other, potentially very radicalInternet technologies exist or are incubating, notablypublic key encryption, peer-to-peer networking,thespread of persistent (‘always on’) broadband con-nectivity, and the evolution of the Web into a two-waycommunication medium rather than a relativelypassive publication medium. By giving a new impetusto libertarian uses of the Internet, these technologiesare also likely to trigger a new set of tensions betweenInternet ‘freedoms’ and regulatory pressures.
The question of whether the Internet is intrinsic-ally a subversive technology which is immune fromcontrol by established economic and power structuresis thus an open one. Recent history is not necessarilya guide to future outcomes and may even bemisleading. This chapter therefore attempts to charta contested space which is in a state of constantdisequilibrium and likely to continue that way.We begin with an outline of the architecture of the Internet and the facilities it offers to global civilsociety. This is followed by some illustrations of civilsociety uses of the Net in a number of different areas.We thenconsider two factors which threaten to limittheusefulness of the network in these contexts. Thefirstisthe so-called ‘digital divide’ and its worryingimplications for those who seek to harness theInternetas a force for enlarging the space for publicdiscussionand social action. The second is the steadyencroachment of governmental and corporateagencies on the basic freedoms of the Net. Finally weexamine some of the new Internet-based tech-nologies which may tip the balance back in favour of libertarian uses of the network. The concludingsection argues that global civil society has a vitalstake in ensuring that the Net remains open anduncontrolled by governmental or corporate forces.
The Network
lthough the Internet is popularly portrayed asa computer network, it is more accuratelydefined as ‘a global network of computernetworks’ which operates using a set of opentechnological protocols of which the TransmissionControl Protocol (TCP/IP) suite is the most important.The Internet works by breaking messages into smallparcels of data known as packets and then passingthose packets through the system until they reachtheir destination. TCP takes care of the disassemblyof messages into packets at the transmission endand their reassembly at the receiving end. IP handlesthe addressing of data packets.The current Internet
came into being in January1983, having evolved from the ARPANET, a packet-switching network conceived and funded by theAdvanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) of the USDepartment of Defense (DoD). The ARPANET cameinto operation in October 1969. Although it wasfunded by a military budget, the prime motivationbehind the network was to link research computersand researchers funded by ARPA in laboratories anduniversities across the US, thereby increasing theutilisation of what were at the time extremelyexpensive assets, namely, large mainframe computers,most of which were incompatible with one another.The prime uses of the new network were originallyexpected to lie in the facilitation of remote access tothese time-shared mainframes and the transport of files from one location to another. One of theunexpected discoveries of the project was that themost intensive application turned out to involve thepassing of messages between researchers, that is,electronic mail (Hafner and Lyon 1996: 214).The ARPANET was a uniform system accessibleonly to researchers funded by ARPA. Shortly after itcame into operation, a number of other computernetworks came into being in the US and elsewhere.Among them were the ALOHA network in Hawaii,the Cyclades network in France, and the NPL networkin the UK’s National Physical Laboratory. Although allof these non-ARPA networks also used packet-switching technology, they were functionallyincompatible with one another and the DoD system.After the successful demonstration of the ARPANETas a working system in 1972, therefore, ARPA turnedits attention to the problem of how to ‘internetwork’these networks to create a bigger, transnationalnetwork. The solution, which originated with VintonCerf and Robert Kahn, evolved over the decade1973–83 and involved the creation of a set of protocols (technical conventions) which would enablecomputers to act as gateways between differentnetworks so that messages could be passed reliablyfrom any node to any other node via anindeterminate number of routing stations (Naughton2000: 162). These protocols eventually became a‘family’ of upwards of 100 detailed standards knowncollectively as the ‘TCP/IP suite’.
The architecture of the Net
The significance of the ‘internetting’ technologybased on TCP/IP is that it enabled the creation of aglobal network with an open, permissive architecture.As there was no central control, it would not makesense to try to pre-specify the kinds of networkswhich would be permitted to join. Anyone couldhook up a network to the emerging ‘internetwork’ solong as they had a gateway computer which ‘spoke’TCP/IP. This principle enabled the emerging networkto grow organically at an astonishing speed.An important implication of the Cerf-Kahn designwas that the overall network was essentially ‘dumb’.Its only function was to pass electronic packets fromone point to another: the so-called ‘end-to-end’principle.
As far as the network was concerned,those packets might be fragments of e-mail,photographs, recorded music, or pornographic videos:they were all the same to the network and weretreated identically. This indifference to content madethe Internet—the term ‘internetwork’ was quicklyshortened to the less cumbersome ‘Internet’—radicallydifferent from previous communications networkswhich had been owned or controlled by agenciesthat determined the uses to which their systemscould be put. In the UK and many European countries,
   C   O   N   T   E   S   T   E   D    S   P   A   C   E  :   T   H   E   I   N   T   E   R   N   E   T   A   N   D    G   L   O   B   A   L   C   I   V   I   L   S   O   C   I   E   T   Y   J  o   h  n   N  a  u  g   h   t  o  n
The ‘end-to-end argument’ was articulated by network architects Jerome Saltzer, David Reed, and David Clark in 1981 as a principle for allocating intelligence within a large-scale computer network.It has since become a central principle of the Internet’s design.See Stanford Center for Internet and Society (2000).
The term ‘Internet’ is often used synonymously with other terms like ‘Web’. For our purposes, the Internet is treated as the communications infrastructure along which various kinds of communications traffic—electronic mail, Web pages, digitised files (MP3, voice, video, text, and so on)—pass.
for example, the national telephone networks wereowned for most of the twentieth century by nationalpost offices, which partly explains why FAXtechnology was so slow to take off in the West:organisations devoted to delivering letters by handwere not disposed to promote the idea of sendingletters down a telephone wire. In sharp contrast, usesand applications of the Internet were determinedentirely by the ingenuity of its users and those whodeveloped applications which could harness itsmessage-passing capabilities. Some commentators(for example, Lessig 1999
) have attributed theexplosion of economic activity and creativitygenerated by the Internet to this factor.The other feature of the original Internet archi-tecture which is significant for our purposes is thefact that authentication of users was not required.Each machine connected to the Net needed to havea unique ‘IP’ (Internet Protocol) address,
and all of that machine’s transactions with other machines onthe network could be logged. But there was—andcurrently still is—no provision for linking IP addressesto known individuals. This meant that the architecturefacilitated anonymity: a feature famously encapsu-lated by the celebrated 1993 New Yorker cartoonshowing two dogs in front of a computer. ‘On theInternet’, one is saying, ‘nobody knows you’re a dog’.The implications of the architecture’s facilitationof anonymity have been far-reaching. Anonymity isa two-edged sword. On the one hand it permits awide range of reputable (and disreputable) uses of theNet because the identity-based sanctions of the realworld do not apply in cyberspace. On the other hand,anonymity often enables the free expression anddissemination of views in ways that would be moredifficult in real-world arenas. The architecture makesit difficult, for example, for security services to trackdown or silence dissidents and for corporations toidentify whistle-blowers or campaigning groupsdisseminating critical information or hostilepropaganda.The technical architecture of the Net has thusbeen a prime determinant of how the network hasbeen used. As in the physical world, architectureenables some things and prevents others. Thesignificant point from our point of view is that thearchitecture of the Net is cast in terms of technicalprotocols, that is to say, as computer code. And, asLessig (1999
) has pointed out, there is nothingimmutable about code. It is pure ‘thought-stuff’ andas such can be changed. This is a subject to which wewill return.
The Internet is a global system in that it has nodes invirtually every country, but the density of users andconnections is very uneven across the globe. It isestimated, for example, that 69 per cent of Internetusers are located in North America and Europe, andthat Africa, with 13 per cent of the world’s population,has less than 1 per cent of the world’s Internet users.Nevertheless the scale of the network’s coverage isstill remarkable. Because of the ‘organic’ architecturecreated by the TCP/IP protocols, it’s impossible to sayhow many Internet users there are, but authoritativeestimates at the time of writing (February 2001)suggest numbers in the region of 400 million.
The Internet as a communications space forglobal civil society
Although there are arguments about its long-termsignificance, few doubt that the Internet represents aradical transformation of mankind’s communicationsenvironment. As one well-known Net evangelist(Barlow in Barlow
et al 
. 1995) has said, ‘We are in themiddle of the most transforming technological eventsince the capture of fire’. There is a widespread belief 
   C   O   N   T   E   S   T   E   D    S   P   A   C   E  :   T   H   E   I   N   T   E   R   N   E   T   A   N   D    G   L   O   B   A   L   C   I   V   I   L   S   O   C   I   E   T   Y   J  o   h  n   N  a  u  g   h   t  o  n
A number made up of four sets of digits: for example, Computers accessing the Net via dial-up lines are assigned temporary IP addresses from a bank held by their Internet services provider (ISP). Computers on local area networks generally access the Net through a gateway machine so that all transactions by an individual machine are logged against the IP address of the gateway computer.
Table 6.1:Estimated internet userpopulation, November 2000
AfricaAsia/PacificEuropeMiddle EastCanada and USALatin AmericaWorld Total
% of total
Nua Internet Surveys (URL) For country data seetable R10 in part IV of this yearbook.

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