Second to last class blog


Class begins with a recap of the previous class, which discussed the web’s effects on politics. Students note politician’s ability to use the web to mold their public image through online discussion, YouTube videos, and other forms of web communications. David Weinburger says the most interesting aspect of the conversation to him was the question of how a candidate’s public image can be defined in an era in which so much information is available.

Prof. Palfrey introduces the day’s discussion, which will consider questions of governance on the web. He discusses Yochai Benkler’s book, The Wealth of Networks, which will form much of the basis for the discussion – and notes how the trajectory of the class overall has been analogous to the framework behind Benkler’s book.

According to Palfrey, there is no “singular moment of constitutionality in cyberspace.” The U.S. had a singular moment – the creation of the Constitution – that set the standards that informed the development of the country. Palfrey distinguishes this moment from ICANN and other discussions that may produce standards but ultimately do not have such a galvanizing effect. In fact, Palfrey says, smaller constitutional moments happen all the time in cyberspace. Widely varying groups of smaller players make decisions that set forth the standards upon which cyberspace operates.

Students push back at Benkler’s views. One says Benkler over-emphasizes the need for open standards in copyright. She says that Benkler operates under an Internet-centric view and has a heightened opinion of the extent to which the web changes the need for copyright protections. Other students offer complementary views, steering the conversation toward Benkler’s discussion of the copyright implications of domain names. Various class commenters disagree on the extent to which domain names should be subject to copyright and the extent to which cybersquatting is a problem.

Another student finds Benkler’s treatment of security issues to be lacking. He feels that Benkler didn’t treat security as the moving force that it is but merely decided to tack on a brief discussion of security in the interest of completeness. A brief discussion ensues about trends in security and in other issues on web as a whole. A distinction arises between trends that evince actual “battles” over various standards and “non-battle” trends that do not. Examples of the latter include the rise of the “walled garden” style of community, such as, and the shifts in regulation of online transactions that seem to correlate with the ebb and flow of web commerce.

The discussion of trends in the online ecology continutes with a discussion of trends that implicate more of a discrete “battle”, such as whether to treat the network sphere as private or public. An analogy is made to public spaces that are open for anyone’s speech contrasted with some of the strictures that have been placed on various web spaces. Palfrey wonders how the “shopping mall” cases – which involve offline spaces that have aspects of both private and public natures – would apply online.

Another such issue is the larger conflict over web sovereignty. The class discusses the conflicts within the view of sovereignty presented in Benkler’s book and Wu and Goldsmith’s “Who Controls the Internet.” The point is raised that predictions of sovereignty based upon views of the current political process do not take into account that the current political climate is controlled by older citizens who have not grown up in cyberspace; with the increasing political power of the cyberspace natives as they grow up and take positions of authority, standards that reflect web differences will increasingly become the norm.

Palfrey discusses the position that traditional rules of international regulatory cooperation apply to the Internet space. The contrary view is that the rules apply less given the ease of international communication – that international communications become more intra-national-like. A debate arises over the extent to which different nations will come together or diverge over issues such as security and cybercrime. Palfrey notes that nations may shy away from cooperation because of the fear of a slippery slope leading to a situation in which nations must cooperate and, in a way, cede their sovereignty over certain issues.

The discussion shifts over to Benkler’s views on the “last mile.” David Weinburger notes that since Benkler’s book was published there is less cause to be optimistic about municipal wi-fi as a last mile player. He notes muni wi-fi’s benefits to equal and open access, which would have the possibility of changing the way government operates for the better by allowing the government to operate under the presumption that citizens have equal access to the Internet.

Palfrey pushes back by positing a scenario in which the municipality is able to filter the content that passes over the muni wi-fi. A further point is raised that not all citizens have computers, thus reducing muni wi-fi’s actual benefits to equal access. David answers by suggesting that a government that knows wi-fi has provided theoretical equal access will tend to institute measures that help that access to become reality.

The final question raised is whether decisions about web governance will be made in the same was as other international standards or whether the Internet is different such that the process can be different. One issue is whether the web will allow nations more opportunity to choose their own frameworks and standards. A student states this process will be similar to the previous process, given that smaller nations still do not have as much of an ability to choose not to follow standards set by others. Palfrey notes that there also is the issue of the effects of standards that are set by some nations on the web as a whole – because of the spillover effects of these standards, there may be an increased impetus to act quickly in order to have such an influence on standards.

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