Who Controls the Internet: Illusions of a Borderless World

June 30, 2006

The intricate balancing of economics, politics and law is a thread that can be followed through every area of legal study. Where ‘Internet law’ differs is that you need stand still for only a moment or two to see the balance swinging. Jack Goldsmith and Tim Wu are law professors who are clearly fascinated by the shifts in balance that they have witnessed. They have one very clear and fundamental point to make, revealed by their subtitle: national boundaries matter and it is governments that control the Internet, insofar as it is in their political and economic interests to do so.


This is an excellent book. If my first thought was that there was no way that one such point could be stretched to fill a book, I stand corrected. It might be that the chapters on the historical development of Internet control are a little slow, but they do give a useful reminder of why many of us harbour those half-digested ‘free beer’ thoughts when addressing Internet content. Although later chapters are ostensibly aimed at reinforcing the main message with recent examples, pertaining to Kazaa and eBay for example, they do rather more. They show a terrific grasp of the “balance” – the limits of law, and practically everything else, when faced with naked power. Jack Goldsmith is Professor of Law at Harvard Law School but held high-level positions with the US government from 2002 to 2004 and no doubt that experience has informed the insights that abound here.


I found the chapter on China especially illuminating. The authors make a convincing case for the view, which recent events have supported, that:

‘the West must abandon the facile yet still dominant assumption that [Chinese Internet] controls are meaningless or ineffective or bound to fail …China is an enormous force that is changing the Internet’s identity’.


It is true that the book is US-centred, but so still is the Internet. As the authors consistently show, it really does not matter who wins the argument when terms such as ‘internationalisation’ and ‘self-regulation’ are bandied about at high-level conferences, the Untied States has ‘no real intention to relinquish its power over such an important resource’. But things may change. The authors see different power blocs (the USA, Europe and China) trying to establish different visions of what the Internet might be and talk of ‘the beginning of a technological version of the cold war’.


The book has faults. The publisher might like to stand in the corner for a while and reflect on why most books with pictures group them together on glossy centre pages (it’s because they look awful as vague grey splodges, as in this book). I particularly liked the thinking behind devoting a page to a photograph of Paris’s Palais de Justice in three shades of grey, justified by the fact that it was there that the Yahoo case was heard. I also wonder whether the authors are spending enough time with normal people – apparently they expect people to be surprised that one of the Internet’s greatest authorities had “a rambling, ragged look, living in sandals and a large unkempt beard’ whereas most people would be surprised by any other appearance. And of course there are some areas where events have moved on – even though the book was published in the UK only on 29 June.


Some of the publisher’s more arresting claims for this book could give the impression that it is an ideas book – leading many IT lawyers to call ‘pass the ammunition’. But this is in truth half law book and half ideas book and very strongly recommended to those prepared to think about the wider issues of Internet law and governance.