This article is about the Politics of the Internet. This explains how the web slowly gradually transitioned from an empty space of nature to a fully-fledged civil society complete with an economy, political body and social hierarchy. The Internet has also been used by many groups who come together using platforms to organise and rally around a common cause.
The Great Transition
At a time the Net was like a Lockean state of nature, as David Resnick likes to describe it (1998: 51-52, 54). Individuals were indeed free and equal, each user was a producer and a consumer and while some were more skilled in certain technological crafts than others, there was no real divide in labour. Cyberspace stretched from virtual horizon to virtual horizon but was never really settled. There was also no real effort to shape the opinions and actions of the mass public. Communities within cyberspace formed around common interests and differences in opinions served to spur thought and discussion. The Internet was really a place for users to live a simple life and generally have fun. All that changed when certain parties recognised the Net as a form of productive labour, where currency justified the reason for people to work for a wage. The induction of currency means that law, civil society and politics must be introduced and Resnick suspected that something similar happened on the net. Once the potential of the Net being used as a form of productive labour was discovered, the impending value for time spent online increased dramatically. Thus institutions, organisations, practices and politics began to crop up all over the web, implementing their own ideals and inducting their agendas and ideas using innovations in technology and developing them within cyberspace. The web had transitioned from a virtual state of nature, to a virtual civil society, complete with its own economy, business outcasts and even social and labour inequalities. Politics on the Internet had moved away from communities engaging in discussion and debate to an era of organised civil society and structured group diversity with a relatively inert citizenry. Only those who are highly knowledgeable of technology will be able to thrive in this virtual society while reality continues to resemble its real life counterpart and the inhabitants of cyberspace, as well as the political institutions and business practices will proceed to join in the struggle for power, wealth and influence from having the most friends on a social website to gaining enough power to manipulate the opinions and actions of the public.
Economic and State Power in Cyberspace
Civil societies that exist today require governance, surveillance and regulation to keep a watchful eye on its citizens. Regulation of the Internet by the state is a possibility from the growth of digital networks and the agenda to regulate the net is contained within technology development. This has sparked debate on the state’s capacity to regulate the Internet and the potential to undermine sovereignty. The status of the Internet as a decentralised network of networks, has given leeway to the notion of the Internet’s built-in autonomy from state power to enhance democracy by strengthening both market society and access for society. However, its openness and technological capacity presents an opportunity for control and limitations. In the last few years, Internet software design has been focused on secure intranets and firm-to-firm transactions. Also the interest in e-commerce has strengthened the development of identity, trademark protection and billing. Working through this process may ensure a secure transaction but does not particularly strengthen the openness of the Internet. The growth of this type of software is in contrast of software which intended to work towards a more open Internet which was the case in the earlier stages of the Internet. The more authoritative software being developed sets up conditions of copyrighting which can lead to charging what can be designed as copyrighted use/access, included a charge per use. The work of political entities and technicians brought about more control of the Internet and more control mechanisms have been placed in order to facilitate discrimination in access to or to distribute some goods or service and ultimately facilitate e-commerce (Sassen, 2007: 582-584).
Regulation and the Internet
There must be some kind of authority overseeing the essential features that allow users to carry out their activities over the Internet having to do with addresses and numbers granting and the domain name systems. What it indicates is that representation of the net as escapism is simply inadequate. This authority is not akin to any regulatory authority but rather a body of gate-keeping which raises the possibility of oversight. Management involves control and assignment of numbers that computers require to locate addresses. It can instruct all the top root servers, the computer executes the inquiry and the recent actions will accept the functions. It was not formalised because its origins were from the first phase of the Internet. This power is held by a group of scientists who invented the computer protocol standard that made the net what it is today. For over 20 years they have debugged the system not necessarily under contract for by any agency. It is a de facto group intent on making the net workable since its beginnings. The function of assigning addresses was for many years under the casual control of one particular scientist who named this function the Internet Assignment Numbers Authority. This group oversees the nets address system and represents a formalisation of the earlier authority. Also the US Government’s Framework for Global Electronic Commerce suggests that regulation should be kept to a minimum due to the Internet’s global reach and technological progression. It even suggests where a few areas where rules are needed, such as privacy and taxation and that policies should be made by quasi-governmental bodies such as the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO). This kind of proposal is cause for concern due to the lack of transparency and the problems that come with it. This is evident from one of the dilemmas of the Internet: cybersquatting, where private speculators size valuable corporate brand-names and sell them back on the Internet to the companies at ludicrous prices. Net addresses are important for establishing an identity online, thus companies bulldoze their rule that they are entitled to any domain names using their trademark. Since the Net is used for more than e-commerce, this unfairly alienates the rights of schools, museums and other non-commercial Net users. The deliberations that have taken place at WIPO mainly involve large business firms working behind closed doors and privatise efforts to design regulations for the Internet. This represents a major operational opening for some sort of governance or control. While the Internet continues to grow, there appears to be growing concern for the necessity of a more accountable system, signalling the sectors that want to strengthen and develop this authority. Some would argue that there is no need for any form of regulation or coordination referring to the Internet as more decentralised network of networks and that an attempt to implement external regulation would be ineffective, while others focus on the establishment of system property rights and other protection methods and how to impose them. Questions on how to govern the Internet continue to be raised and will ultimately decide how the whole of the Internet will be governed, either through a multilateral organisation or through a sort of constitutional government pertaining to the Internet (Sassen, 2007: 584-586).
Technopower and Cyberpower in Virtual Society
Users are defined by their virtual identity and style and how they use it with online communities. An identity can be read from an e-mail address, an avatar or any other form of data while style is their behaviour and how their style of interaction is recognised within communities. Users are judged by markers including their addresses, usernames, signatures and styles. Individuals’ offline may not be the most sociable people and perhaps are deemed unpopular, but on the Net it may be the complete opposite. They may be the most popular user on a social networking site and be the most talkative and contribute the most to online forums. A form of power is given to the user to use abilities such as identity building,
Everyone who uses the Internet relies on a range of technologies that allow users to travel through cyberspace. Any action such as buying or messaging can only occur when the user is within an electronic space developed and maintained by various hardware and software. There is a heavy reliance on technology in cyberspace and they are what allow any user to carry out their desired action. Individual powers are defined by the technology used and what they offer. The Net is not about the powers that individuals can use but about the mechanisms that create those powers for all users whom are collective bodies that create and restrain the nature of individuality in cyberspace since communities provide the basis for users constituted by technologies. Technopower is the constant shift between peripherals, hardware and software and the social/ethic values influenced by the designers and developers. Their ethics and ideals went into these mechanisms and the users see that when users look beyond the lifeless appearance of these technologies. Technopower in cyberspace is governed by a heavy reliance on technological tools which enables users to feed their ever increasing appetite for information (Jordan, 2007: 594-599). (http://www.isoc.org/inet99/proceedings/3i/3i_1.htm Accessed May 12, 2011)
The users who are able to grasp the technology needed to traverse through cyberspace will be who benefits the most out of the information superhighway, while those who are unable to work with the functionality of technology will be left behind and looked down upon. Kelly McWilliam (2010) recalls how cyberspace is dominated by a digital generation who incorporates racist, sexist and technophobian ideologies into their exclusionary discourse to preserve the technological elite. Many users are marginalised for their lack of knowledge of Internet technologies, their social class and even physical signifiers such as race and gender. In this age where advanced technology is found in the material world and within cyberspace, it is the technological elite that find a place in the upper echelon of cyberspace.
(http://www.politicsandculture.org/2010/08/10/cyberpolitics-kelly-mcwilliam-2/) Accessed March 7, 2011)
The emergence of the World Wide Web have allowed various online communities to form, discussing a wide breath of issues ranging from their favourite books to current political affairs. Debates continue to rage all over the net about the state of the Internet and technopolitics. Some would argue that the Internet has created a platform for a division of the Web into sub groups with special interests which overall creates fragmented communities, while others would say that information on the Internet is reduced to cultural noise and rendered effective-less which may be termed to a new stage of Communicative Capitalism (Kahn and Kellner, 2007: 618).
Since the Web has transitioned into a virtual civil state with the intention of control, order, civility and surveillance, there will no doubt be users and communities who will show discontent of the virtual state and believe the old utopian ideology that the Web is to be free of any form of state regulation. Also major events which affect the world will draw major attention. Thus we see emergent technologies and communities interacting as tentative forms of self-determination and control from below with Internet citizen activist organising politically on issues including information transparency, capitalist globalisation, war, ecological destruction and other forms of oppression. Web based technologies have enabled groups to organise and rally around a common cause. The Internet has allowed these groups to effectively communicate with each other to organise rallies, protests and even events with a chaotic and violent agenda. Oppositional groups within cyberspace have advocated for online rights, freedom of information and piracy. Hackers use their skills for political purposes. Web platforms such as Blogs, Wikis and social networks have given activists the means to express their views and promote their agenda all over the web since they are relatively easy to create, maintain and edit even for non-technical users. They are also a popular choice for activists to use as their platform since they represent the next evolution of web-based technologies which connect to new media. These groups will use the technology and methods at their disposal to have their voices heard and whatever goals they are working towards realised (Kahn and Kellner, 2007: 619-621,627).
There is no doubt that the utopian ideal of a virtual world were all are equal and free is beyond reach with the establishment of a civil society on the Net. Organisations and institutions are continuing to find new ways to regulate how the internet functions for a more orderly, managed and civil use of the Internet. It may be necessary to implement such a system so that e-commerce, social networking and other online activity may go unhindered and benefit the users. However this act from corporations may be seen as a means to dominate and control virtual society and undermine the sovereignty of the internet. There is also an unfair advantage in favour of the digital elite and users who are not quite tech-savvy are still left behind and looked down upon. However with the emergence of platforms that enable user created content with no prior knowledge of technology required, perhaps the tide may turn in favour of the digital rookies someday as platforms and applications become easier to use. Yet there is another possibility that users will demand more advance tools to acquire more information, thus adding to the complexity of the Internet and still alienate those outside of the circle of the digital elite (Jordan, 2007: 599).
(http://www.isoc.org/inet99/proceedings/3i/3i_1.htm Accessed May 12, 2011)
Finally for groups and individuals who wish to express their views and organise events that will have their voices heard by the state, there is no better platform to use than the internet. It is far easier to communicate with members all over the world and creating an online base of operations is relatively easy even for non-technical users. Groups may use the Internet to highlight an issue for the state to address which will make life better for everyone. Some of these groups however, may use the Internet to advocate for less noble means such as violence and hatred of others outside their group and may go as far as to organise events with intent of causing harm to which they deem as outside their group as well as the state.
Politics proceed to shape and change the way the Internet is used. Organisations and institutions want a more regulated Internet, the technological elite still have the upper hand and groups are advocating whatever goals they are working towards. This is a political and on-going struggle for recognition, regulation and even dominance of Cyberspace.