The Internet is not kind to established institutions. In the last year alone, as organizations from the Vatican to Sony to Arab governments have discovered, the Internet’s most meaningful characteristics—decentralization and the ease of information sharing—are precisely those that most threaten long-standing hierarchies. Being connected to the Internet means being vulnerable to coordinated actions that can knock down walls of secrecy and shatter mechanisms of control.
When this power is aimed at totalitarian governments, it’s widely celebrated. It’s easy to find headlines in otherwise sober news sources hyping the power of the Internet (usually in the form of Facebook and Twitter, accessed over smart mobile devices) to strike fear in the hearts of dictators. And while nobody actually believes that online social networks cause uprisings such as the Arab Spring, these technologies of connection and communication do serve as important accelerators of change, allowing the uprisings to bring together more people, more rapidly and more visibly than would have been possible before.
But Washington officials and the conventional big media don’t get to control the targets of Internet-fired outrage: Over the past few years, groups such as Anonymous, Wikileaks, and the Pirate Bay have hit government and commercial institutions hard, revealing secrets and freely sharing digital files that those in power would prefer to keep under lock and key. And with government-crafted malware like Stuxnet and Flame, it’s clear that such cyberattacks no longer come only from the digital underground.
The notion of the Internet as a force of political and social revolution is not a new one. As far back as the early 1990s, in the early days of the World Wide Web, there were technologists and writers arguing forcefully that the Internet was destined to become the most important tool for cultural change in human history. They were (mostly) right, but not for the reasons they believed; in retrospect, strident manifestos such as John Perry Barlow’s 1996 Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace seem almost preciously naive about the nature of power and participation online. The ability of the Internet to alter the course of nations and economies does not come from being independent of the material world, but from being deeply enmeshed in it.
In fact, it turns out that the Internet is a rather brittle weapon of transformation. If the icon of revolution in the 20th century was the AK-47, for many observers the 21st century icon is the Internet-connected cameraphone. But the AK-47 is a stand-alone technology. The smartphone, conversely, is completely dependent upon a complex physical infrastructure—cellular towers, mobile network providers, the wires and routers behind it all, and more. Of course, this isn’t just a peculiar limitation of cell phones; every type of Internet technology requires an elaborate physical network in order to function. And as protestors from Tehran to San Francisco have discovered, such networks are easy to shut down.
If the Internet actually was an independent, sovereign entity, that would be the end of the discussion. But because the Internet has become so deeply woven into global economic and social systems, shutting down the Internet also harms the interests of those who have little to do with protestors and revolution—and, in some cases, can even harm the interests of the governments themselves. Few official shutdowns of communication and information networks in recent years have lasted long.
Big institutions have hit back in other ways, with lawsuits, arrests, and even more stringent new regulations. But while the arrests of LulzSec members and the detention of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange may provide lurid reports, the real challenge the Internet poses to established institutions isn’t limited to headline-grabbing hacks or the publication of classified documents.
Simply put, the Internet undermines the ability of an institution to control its own narrative. When the world was limited to top-down, largely broadcast media, companies and governments had a relatively straightforward way to shape the perceptions that people had about them. All that the general public would know about an institution was what could be found in the press, or in advertisements. There were scandals, to be sure, but only the most egregious would hit the national consciousness.
Today, sites from Wikileaks to Yelp can tell you far more about a given organization than you might once have thought possible. The information isn’t always negative—savvy restaurants know how valuable a good Yelp review can be—but it’s never controllable. Even a simple Google search can show this. It doesn’t take much for critical commentary to show up in search results alongside official institution websites, and a concerted effort can even place unsavory references at the top of the results page (as former Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum infamously discovered).
Moreover, digital systems can scan global data streams to find breaking news before governments are ready to go public, and sometimes before officials are even aware of it. A few years ago, the Canadian Global Public Health Information Network, looking for patterns in global health reports, spotted the onset of the SARS epidemic before the World Health Organization did; more recently, a site called Dataminr, relying on software that automatically scanned the global Twitter stream, was able to report to its subscribers that Osama bin Laden had been killed a good 20 minutes before it was officially announced.
If the icon of revolution in the 20th century was the AK-47, for many observers the 21st century icon is the Internet-connected cameraphone.
It’s hard to find an aspect of institutional power that hasn’t come under attack. Bar-code scanning apps for mobile phones, for example, make it easy for a consumer to check out third-party analysis of the health, environmental, and social aspects of a potential purchase, much to the chagrin of manufacturers. Retailers are similarly up in arms about apps that allow shoppers to do immediate price-comparison by scanning a product on the shelf. From the local supermarket to the seats of governmental and cultural power, the Internet has up-ended any sense of control.
The Internet’s power comes from several sources. From a technical perspective, a key strength of the Internet is that it’s an open platform. That is, the Internet was designed in a way that makes it easy to connect new kinds of technologies to the network – all you need to do is adhere to a set of common protocols. That’s why software and hardware that nobody could have even imagined a decade ago can spread so quickly; as long as it “speaks” TCP/IP (the basic Internet language), any innovative new system can be part of the global network. This is also what makes regulating the Internet so difficult: rules that block particular applications or devices can be easily bypassed with new technologies, while laws that try to control the fundamental parts of the Internet—such as the late, unlamented SOPA/PIPA bills of early 2012—have the very real potential to disrupt fundamental Internet functions, and do harm to both existing and any future Internet uses.
The net’s technological strength is matched by a key social-political strength: the Internet is non-spatial. That is, the Internet makes connections and collaboration possible without regards to geography or physical proximity. In most cases, it’s as easy to work with people on another continent as it is to work with people in the same office. This makes it possible for members of marginalized communities to find each other, and for new ideas to spread globally in a matter of seconds. It allows for cooperation across borders, such as the proxy servers that allow Chinese netizens to slip past the Great Firewall. It’s how Google employee Wael Ghonim could help kick-start the Egyptian uprising while he was still based in Dubai.
But these two strengths pale in comparison to its most surprising power:
The Internet never forgets.
Once a piece of information makes its way online, it’s there forever. A secret that ends up on the Internet is not only no longer a secret, it can never be a secret again. Moreover, any effort to remove it or block its spread effectively guarantees that it will spread more quickly, and more visibly. This is as true for secret government documents put on Wikileaks as it is for casual comments on Facebook or Twitter. There are even sites dedicated to following political figures on social networks simply to archive what they say, even (or especially) if the post is quickly deleted. This isn’t directed only at governments, of course. Details about a lost iPhone prototype spread faster than Apple could control once posted on gadget website Gizmodo. And the Church of Scientology—if anything, even more dedicated to secrecy than Apple—has been unable to stop the dissemination of documents listing the hidden revelations otherwise available only to the highest-paying members.
And all of this is possible because the Internet and its various associated technologies are deeply intertwined with our economy and culture. To the degree that the Internet poses a challenge to big institutions, its power arises from those same big institutions being in turn dependent upon it. This interdependence emerges because the Internet is not a thing in and of itself—it’s a manifestation of human desires. If established institutions are challenged by the Internet, it’s because those institutions can’t match the Internet’s capacity to make certain those desires are satisfied.