Networks and States: The Global Politics of Internet Governance
When the prevailing system of governing divides the planet into mutually exclusive territorial monopolies of force, what institutions can govern the Internet, with its transnational scope, boundless scale, and distributed control? Given filtering/censorship by states and concerns over national cybersecurity, it is often assumed that the Internet will inevitably be subordinated to the traditional system of nation-states. In Networks and States, Milton Mueller counters this, showing how Internet governance poses novel and fascinating governance issues that give rise to a global politics and new transnational institutions. Drawing on theories of networked governance, Mueller provides a broad overview of Internet governance from the formation of ICANN to the clash at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), the formation of the Internet Governance Forum, the global assault on peer-to-peer file sharing, and the rise of national-level Internet control and security concerns. Internet governance has become a source of conflict in international relations. Networks and States explores the important role that emerging transnational institutions could play in fostering global governance of communication-information policy.
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Milton Mueller's "Networks and States" continues his exploration of the forces shaping Internet policy across the globe. What Mueller is doing in his work in this book and elsewhere is becoming the early chronicler of the unfolding Internet governance scene. He meticulously reports on, and then deconstructs, ongoing governance developments along the cyber-frontier. He is, in effect, a sort of de Tocqueville for cyberspace; an outsider looking in and asking questions about what makes this new world tick. Fifty years from now, when historians look back on the opening era of Internet governance squabbles, Mueller's work will be among the first things they consult.
Mueller's goal in Networks and States is two-fold and has both an empirical and normative element. First, he aims to extend his exploration of the actors and forces affecting Internet governance debates and then develop a framework and taxonomy to better map and understand these forces and actors. He does a wonderful job on that front, even though many Net governance issues can be incredibly boring. Mueller finds a way to make them far more interesting, especially by helping to familiarize the reader with the personalities and organizations that increasingly dominate these debates and the issues and principles that drive their actions or activism.
Mueller's second goal in Networks and States is to breathe new life into the old cyber-libertarian philosophy that was more prevalent during the Net’s founding era but has lost favor today. Mueller says his "normative stance is rooted in the Internet’s early promise of unfettered and borderless global communication, and its largely accidental and temporary escape from traditional institutional mechanisms of control." Mueller makes a convincing case for giving cyber-libertarianism, or what he calls "denationalized liberalism," another chance; a chance that it really never had. "At its core," Mueller continues, "denationalized liberalism favors a universal right to receive and impart information regardless of frontiers, and sees freedom to communicate and exchange information as fundamental and primary elements of human choice and political and social activity." Moreover, “this ideology holds a presumption in favor of networked, associative relations over hierarchical relations as a mode of transnational governance," he argues. "Governance should emerge primarily as a byproduct of many unilateral and bilateral decisions by its members to exchange or negotiate with other members (or refuse to do so)." Finally, he says, "a denationalized liberalism strives to make Internet users and suppliers an autonomous, global polity." In essence, it’s about free will, freedom of action, and freedom of association. It’s essentially classical liberalism for the Information Age. Mueller admits that "such an ideology needs to answer tough questions about when hierarchical exercises of power are justified and through which instruments they are exercised." But he continues on to make the case for "question[ing] the scope of national sovereignty over communications." "The governance of the Internet needs to explicitly recognize and embrace the principle that there are limits to national sovereignty over the flow of information," he says.
Mueller has made a beautiful case for cyber-libertarianism and he has given the movement its marching orders: "In short, we need to find ways to translate classical liberal rights and freedom into a governance framework suitable for the global Internet. There can be no cyberliberty without a political movement to define, defend, and institutionalize individual rights and freedoms on a transnational scale."
Even if you aren’t compelled to join the cause, however, I highly recommend you pick up Mueller's Network and States, anyway. It's a terrific survey of the current state of Internet governance and an important work of political science.