Who Controls the Internet? Illusions of a Borderless World is a 2006 book by Jack Goldsmith and Tim Wu that offers an assessment of the struggle to control the Internet. Starting with a discussion of the early vision of a borderless global community, the authors present some of the most prominent individuals, ideas and movements that have played key roles in developing the Internet. As law professors at Harvard and Columbia, respectively, Goldsmith and Wu assert the important role of government in maintaining Internet law and order while debunking the claims of techno-utopianism that have been espoused by theorists such as Thomas Friedman.
Goldsmith and Wu conclude that the importance of governmental coercion on the Internet has been seriously underestimated, writing that "the failure to understand the many faces and facets of territorial governmental coercion is fatal to globalization theory as understood today, and central to understanding the future of the Internet" (184).
The book has three parts.
The authors discuss the early days of the Internet through the 1990s, when Julian Dibbell and John Perry Barlow articulated a vision of free Internet that gained wide currency in the public imagination. The Electronic Frontier Foundation worked to protect the Internet from regulation in the belief that a free online community might unite people and eliminate the need for government. Jon Postel was the ultimate authority over Internet domain names.
Goldsmith and Wu describe key changes in control over the Internet that occurred in the 1990s, beginning with consolidation of power by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) in the 1990s. A DoD subcontractor called Network Solutions, Inc., became the ultimate authority over Internet naming conventions in 1991. Although Postel remained functionally in control for a few more years, "the transfer of partial authority to Network Solutions was a crucial turning point in Internet history. For the first time, administration of part of the Internet's naming system would be in the hands of a for-profit company" (35).
In 1995, Network Solutions began charging individuals to register domain names. This brought the company, which had a monopoly on issuing domain names, large profits. When the International Ad Hoc Committee, set up by the Internet Society, released an "Internet Constitution" in 1997, they met with hostility from the U.S. government and were ultimately thwarted (41–43).
Jon Postel met an even more direct response when he attempted to retake control over the root naming and numbering system in 1998. Hours after Postel asked eight regional operators for root control over the Internet, he received threats of legal and economic repercussions from federal agent Ira Magaziner. Network Solutions has retained final authority over Internet domain names ever since (44–46).
No longer an international phenomenon, the Internet has become quite different for its users in different countries. One reason for differentiation across nations is that users want information presented in their local language and context. Advertisers likewise want to present information to interested audiences, which tend to be geographically specific (58–63).
Goldsmith and Wu also describe how governments began to pressure or control local intermediaries in order to restrict Internet content. Examples include:
The authors also describe the U.S. battle between the RIAA and file-sharing services such as Napster and Kazaa. They note the ironies of Kazaa's position: partly in defiance of U.S. law, but partly reliant on it to maintain order internally (117–118). Goldsmith and Wu describe the emergence of Apple's iTunes Store as a legal alternative, made preferable by government enforcement of laws against peer-to-peer file-sharing (118–121). They compare the small number of persistent underground file-sharers to groups of Chinese dissidents talking in obscure code, arguing that these groups do not pose a major threat to the interests of business and government: "Ironically, then the most rebellious filesharing programmers can become handmaidens of the government's will. What secretive darknets do is zone the music world, dividing music consumers on the basis of free time and computer ability" (123).
The authors present eBay as a case study in the usefulness of governments in protecting commerce. They describe how the eBay community, during its small beginning phase, relied on goodwill, public ratings, and mediation to navigate disputes among customers (130–132). As the site grew larger, so did the number of malicious users (132–136). Eventually the site was forced to turn to governments for real law enforcement (136–139). Now, eBay works closely with law enforcements systems in the countries where it operates (143–145).
According to the authors, eBay, the case of an Australian libel lawsuit against a U.S. publisher (147–148), and Microsoft's acquiescence to European Union (EU) regulation of its Passport service (173–177) are examples of how the bordered Internet seeks to protect citizens from harm. They argue that as a communications medium, the Internet is not unlike other technologies that have come before and therefore the Internet is not likely to displace territorial government. Rather, it is more likely, the authors speculate, that cultural and political differences may be leading us into a technological Cold War where the U.S., EU and China develop their own competitive Internet platforms.