April 10, 2023Information AgeInformation OrderGeopoliticsacorn

Defending a free and open information order

The battle to defend the Internet is looking a lot like the battle to preserve liberal democracy

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Over the past three decades almost everyone on the planet has benefited from the internet because it is free and open. This is best represented in being able to send an email to anyone using any email server or client. Or being able to access any website anywhere using any web server or browser software. Open protocols and interoperability made the internet successful while its closed competitors like AOL, CompuServe, Minitel and other walled gardens (walled prisons, actually) lie forgotten in the ash heap of history.

I have begun to see contemporary geopolitics as a contest between two information orders: one which is free and open, and the other that is closed and commanded. We could have a free and commanded” order too, but it is less stable than the other two.

Now this core interoperability and interconnectedness are under severe threat. For two reasons:

  1. China’s methodical and decades-long project of building a firewalled Sinosphere; where information flows and epistemology are controlled.
  2. Actions by Western technology companies — including Google, Meta (Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp), Twitter and others to use their market power and political power to cut out the broader internet.

The current controversy over Twitter limiting access to Substack is not about caprice and business rivalry: it is yet another example of Big Tech trying to lock users onto their platforms. If Substack looks like a David to Twitter’s Goliath, it’s only because of their relative size, not character and intent. Whatever its executives might say today, if they grow to sufficient size, they too are likely to raise walls around their users.

To read about more things like this, you can check out my published raw notes and my massive archives.

The internet was designed to survive a nuclear attack. The United States can defend itself against nuclear-armed adversaries. But neither can survive attacks from within the system, by players who benefit from the freedom and openness, accumulate power and then attack the very conditions that led to their success. Consciously or otherwise, they are kicking the ladder after reaching the top.

The battle to defend the free and open nature of the internet looks quite similar to that of defending liberal democracy. Perhaps it is the same battle.

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