Internet and Power

How much power does the Internet have? How much is the Net capable of influencing or determining behaviors? And who has power online? What does “power” mean on the Internet? Who has it and due to which factors?

It is time to consider these questions, also to avoid leaving them to a handful of governments – as it will happen during the next G8 meeting, led by President Sarkozy and devoted to Internet governance issues – or solely to Internet experts. The above questions, in fact, touch fundamental aspects of our democracies, such as consensus forming, transparency of the State, freedom of expression, the future of political parties and much more.

Regarding the power of the Net as a communications infrastructure it is enough to say that no developed country can afford to switch off the Net without paying an unbearably high price. The economy, the public administration, even the Army depend on the Internet. It is, therefore, rather a matter of the degree of actual online freedom, as in China and in other authoritarian regimes, not anymore whether to have the Net or not.

The power of the Internet is rapidly growing also in the sense of its capacity to influence or determine behaviors. A capacity based on the great ease with which the Net enables real-time one-to-one communication (email, chat, voice over IP), one-to-many (blog, social networks) and many-to-many (the tangle of social connections). A “big bang” that it is changing both the informational diet of citizens and the way they communicate among each other and organize themselves. Making mobilizations particularly easy, as proved by the Obama 2008 campaign, by the Tea Party movement and by the recent insurrections in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere. It is a wave of change that has been moving more quickly in countries who tend to naturally like what is new, such as the United States (Harold Bloom eloquently wrote of America's “neoism”). But the wave is reaching everywhere, also countries relatively poor - but young and increasingly well-educated - such as those of Northern Africa and of the Middle East.

It is, therefore, important to understand who has power on the Internet, also because, as the power of the Net increases, so are the forces that are trying to redraw the power-lines.

Does the power belong to the builders of our computers or to the owners of the software that makes them work? Or does it belong to the masters of the cables (both physical and ethereal ones), who sell us Internet access and who are in the position of potentially monitoring all our traffic? How much power belongs to those entities who make us find what we are looking for, i.e., the search engines ? And how much to those who have the deep pockets to create the most popular websites and to ensure smooth transport of their streams? Or does online power rest mostly with the owners of the large blog-, picture- and video-sharing platforms? Or with the owners of the largest social networks?

And, crucially, who has potentially power on some - or all - of the above actors?

All these questions call for specific answers, often complementary with each other and at times not obvious to articulate. What is certain is that online freedom – defined as leaving as much power as possible in the hands of individuals – requires that a layer of freedom is preserved at all levels, from actual control of our computers (both hardware and software) and actual control of our data and content, to the ability of communicating online secretly and without being discriminated.

Such layer of freedom can be at least partly preserved by user-level actions, such as using privacy software to communicate and to navigate.

But legislative action remains indispensable. At a constitutional level, it is necessary to enshrine Internet access as a fundamental right, as proposed by prof. Stefano Rodotà and as repeatedly requested by Tim Berners-Lee. At a regular legislative level, a series of laws ensuring the key components of Internet freedom, from network neutrality to digital inclusion, needs to be adopted to give substance to the above mentioned constitutional principle.

If we will succeed in applying democratic principles to the Net, avoiding in particular big concentrations of power, the Net may in turn help our, often frail (not only in Italy), democracies to make them more substantial. In particular, the Net could help filling the void between electoral events, by articulating the permanent dialogue between elected and electors that, besides the debates in Parliament, should be one of the pillars of all representative democracies. Dialogue that is urgently needed and that cannot be replaced neither by polls nor by the often shameful shouting offered by politicians on television. It is a kind of dialogue – to be sure – that it is already taking place online every day, involving an increasing number of representatives and thousands of citizens. But it is still just fragments, flashes of what could be and still is not. We must try to build on those fragments to give them shape and weight. In that sense, to discuss of power and the Internet coincides with discussing of an important component of the future of democracy.