At first glance, the EFF manifesto looked like an overly optimistic techno-libertarian view of the world. After all, from today’s perspective, much of the dreams espoused in the letter seem moot. Is the internet really a tool for individual liberty, or one enabling manipulation and control on a scale we can’t imagine? The reality is that today, government, including the US, do indeed try to regulate the internet. Moreover, even if we ignore the government’s interference, corporations are more dominant than ever in setting the rules of the internet. 25 years ago, the internet may have seemed like a playground of personal webpages and trivia that are out there for you to discover. Today, much of that information is funneled through a small set of internet giants, like Google and Facebook. In exchange for that convenience, we allow these companies to determine what’s interesting and what’s not, what’s acceptable and what’s not. Remember the shock when we found out Facebook was running internal experiments toying with user emotions by altering their news feed content? And content does not flow as seamlessly across geopolitical borders as hoped. Yes, we have VPNs and various piracy methods, but content is often locked to one region or another. Nonetheless, the internet on the whole still remains decentralized at least in theory, with any restrictions on free flow of information circumventable with enough effort.
When it comes to regulating the internet, concentration of market power in one place creates an easy point for the government to target. Interestingly enough, we seem to have come full circle with walled gardens, as we’ve noted throughout our seminars. We went from the AT&T telephone monopoly, easily controlled by the government, to an online walled garden created by services like CompuServe, to a more decentralized system of web pages on the internet. Today, once again, companies like Google and Facebook are increasingly acting as gatekeepers to the broader internet. These platforms, knowing our preferences, are able to surface the content we want better than any other means. With Google’s AMP pages and Facebook’s Instant Articles, even outside content is hosted within these walled gardens, based on the premise of a good user experience. When platforms start to play more of a gatekeeper role, they expose themselves to questioning when questionable content spreads on these networks, as occurred during the 2016 presidential campaign. And with concentration of power within a few platforms, the government is able to exert its influence more efficiently, as we saw with recent Congressional grilling of tech companies in relation to Russian interference. With the internet playing an increasingly dominant role in civic society and the economy, government is going to continue to try and figure out its place in setting the rules, for better or for worse.