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Information Space and Empowerment in a Changing World

By Leshuo Dong

The 2012 Milton Wolf Seminar “Transitions Transformed: Ideas of Information and Democracy Post-2011,” brought us together to think about how the governance of information space shifts global power dynamics. Participants from all over the world discussed Internet regulation, media law cases, and media development in a global context.

Across the range of case studies—from consideration of media and information consumption patterns in Iran, to the lessons of the Arab Spring, American government notions of Internet freedom, and finally to China’s declaration of Internet sovereignty—I was struck by the current and potential power that information flows have to transform global power dynamics, particularly as domestic debates about the governance of informational space are increasingly conducted under the global spotlight.

As highlighted during the seminar discussions, especially in the session entitled “The International Political Economy of the Internet: Technologies of Freedom and Technologies of Control,” there are intense debates regarding what players and principles should govern domestic and international informational spaces. The development and application of shared principles, norms, rules, decision-making procedures, and programs that shape the regulation and use of the Internet are at the center of these ongoing discussions. According to my understandings and observations, critical questions that were raised during the Milton Wolf Seminar presentations and discussions were:

• Does the Internet need a global regulator? 

• Will there be a set of globally accepted principles related to Internet governance?

• What should be the most important elements of this possible global commons? 

To think about these questions, we must consider several dimensions of power and empowerment in informational spaces. First, some states are attempting to transport the traditional power that they wield over “old media” technologies like radio, television, or telecom to the Internet. In the short term, however, there’s no way that any government could “take over the Internet.” Not only is this technically impossible, but the Internet’s culture is too decentralized for any single power to effectively take control. Nonetheless, we should be aware that many countries across the globe are hoping to gain a greater power to manipulate the Internet. Some are trying to retain the dominant position that they held over telecom and broadcast media regulation. Others claim that security concerns necessitate that they exert similar control over the Internet.

While governments like China and Iran are accused of fearing that open information flows will lead to regime change or at least threaten political destabilization, other governments seek to protect their information spaces out of calls for populism, nationalism, or trade protectionism. However, to discern the influence of political power on Internet governance, we need more systematic analysis on why and how governmental proposals to replace the Internet’s decentralized and open system should be resisted. Current multilateral systems of Internet governance are facing problems. There is little unity or cohesion among opponents of state efforts to increase control over the Internet through regulation and governance. Another concern is that those who oppose more government Internet regulation have failed to present a viable alternative. A collaborative spirit regarding the Internet is easier said than done. While many actors promote multi-stakeholder Internet regulation, which refers to the process of bringing together diverse players and ensuring they have a voice in the policy making process, the rhetoric is far from the reality. The problem is that multi-stakeholder approaches might be a helpful during the policy negotiations process, but the outcome cannot be ensured. In other words, multi-stakeholder policymaking doesn’t ensure that the agreed-upon principles or policies will prevent different political and corporate actors from asserting more control over the Internet.

Many of the seminar discussions focused on how different political actors exert influence over the governance of informational space; corporate control was not as big a focal point during the seminar. Despite the widespread benefits of cross-border data flows to economic growth, in the past decade people have begun to worry about how to ensure that the international market for information and communication technologies is fair and contestable. Technically, broadband providers have the ability to block internet service, applications, and content; telephone or cable companies are also able to slow down competing or undesired content. Hence new media companies, including Amazon and Google, as well as public interest groups, have raised calls for "network neutrality." But does "neutrality" adequately address more fundamental changes that broadband and cable monopolies are seeking in their quest to monetize the Internet? If not, how should we prevent the Internet from becoming a medium that functions solely as a marketing tool of commercial institutions, and not as a relay of civic-related communications? It is critical for businesses around the world that electronic goods and services move across borders as freely as possible. However without proactive intervention from the public, the international rules governing the flow of digital goods, services, data, and infrastructure are incomplete because they don’t necessarily serve the values and issues that we should care about, like civil rights. 

The issues discussed above are enough to serve as a wake-up call for the world's two billion plus Internet users, whose rights might be further threatened by the push for ever-greater control by states and corporations. The Internet has, in a relatively short amount time, become an essential instrument for today’s citizens. Take China for example: The population of Internet users there has reached 500 million and the number of applications users has also dramatically increased since 2010. The relationship between access to media and other information sources and citizen empowerment is a critical issue to consider when discussing Internet regulation. It is obvious that the increasing convergence of information, multimedia, and transmission technologies is having a rapid fundamental social, economic, and political impact on both the developing and developed worlds. Over the last few years, the deployment and exploitation of technology in support of socio-economic development has been a high priority on the development agenda, especially in the Global South. Information and communication technologies for development programs have been implemented in places like Asia and Africa out of the belief that creativity and innovation can flourish when citizens have access to computers, servers, routers and mobile devices, and services such as cloud computing.

As underlined in the remarks made by seminar participants, in the past decade, the world has already witnessed historic Internet policy debates over various issues like online intellectual property, privacy, and cyber attacks. These issues have divided many organizations, academics, companies, and policymakers in the United States and Europe. However, how can the debates concentrated in the West really become a “global” debate? How should this debate lead people to a more thorough understanding of the powers that controls the global informational space? And how and when will people realize the power that they already have or should have? More studies of the Internet's current and potential roles around the globe are sorely needed in order to reach a common ground.



Leshuo Dong is a visiting scholar at the Center for Global Communication Studies at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. She is also a PhD candidate specializing in international communication and comparative media studies at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China. 

[Photo courtesy of Shutterstock]


This is the third in a series of five dispatches from the 2012 Milton Wolf Seminar titled, "Transitions Transformed: Ideas of Information and Democracy Post-2011". To read the others, click here: IIIIV, V.

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