Free at Last?

Something Wendy Hui Kyong Chun writes in the introduction to Control and Freedom Power and Paranoia in the Age of Fiber Optics in an interesting way sums up the dichotomy between just the struggle for freedom (that one might argue Anonymous undertakes) on one hand and the struggle for control (let’s say the state wants control) on the other hand: “Although ideologies and practices of freedom and control are not new, the coupling of these term is uniquely tied to information technology and our current political situation” (2006, p.1). Some argue that the Internet have lead us into an era of freedom whereas others argue it has pushed us towards a greater control. “Control-freedom,” the two are terms clearly connected with each other and are both possible directions that the continued development of the Internet can take. “Paranoid narratives of total surveillance and total freedom are the poles of control-freedom, and are symptomatic of a larger shift in power relations from the rubric of discipline and liberty to that of control and freedom” (2006, p.6).

So the question is if there can be harmony? And if we even want to strive for harmony! As you might have noted I strongly believe in the freedom that Internet can provide one with. But is it even possible to break free from control? Well. “Yes,” Chun argues–Freedom cannot be controlled and new media provides us with “possibilities for a freedom beyond control” (2006, p.2).  She goes on to describe it by interpreting the ideas of Lawrence Lessig presented in the work Code: And Other Laws of Cyberspace (1999) by claiming that freedom means free code, if code cannot be owned then it’s difficult to control, in other words: “to ensure democracy, code must not be owned” (Chun, 2006, p.67). This of course relates back to my previous post about hacktivism, hacktivism is a way to challenge power relations and power. It’s a way of using code to strike back at those who control it as a way to free cyberspace.

This of course leads us to the idea of governance. Can the Internet be governed? And if so, by whom? In the book Multi-Stakeholder Governance and the Internet Governance (2008) Jeremy Malcolm uses the Internet Governance Forum, established in 2005 to provide “a transparent, democratic, and multilateral process (…) for dialogue on Internet Governance policy” (Malcolm, 2008, p.2), as a basis for his reflection upon the topic. Malcolm notes, relating back to ideas of freedom that “modern-day hacker culture (…) in fact [is] largely coincident with open source culture” ( 2008, p.5) and that “all information should be free” (2008, p.216).  But to get back on track, Malcolm argues that governance is not the same as government but rather “management” (2008, p.19).  Which is something that I think most people can agree with, there needs to be some sort of management even in a free world. We are not, just like in real life, allowed to exercise our freedom in a way that infringes upon another individuals freedom.

In the end Malcolm lands in the idea of governance via networks including both state-actors and actors from the private sector as well as, and in my mind most importantly, actors from the civil society, which in Malcolm’s words “has a role in articulating and developing norms” (2008, p.26). Governing or managing the world wide web needs to be a multilateral project and relating back to the ideas of freedom and democracy–a multilateral OSS undertaking.

— Irina Bernebring Journiette


  1. Cristina Souza

    Nice review! Interesting analyses. Few words, just to collaborate with the discussion.
    Indeed, more than a virtual arena for contesting, internet is itself a contested venue, due to its several dichotomies, among those, freedom-surveillance.

    One cannot deny that internet is a cyberspace where one can express freely, however it also implies control over its users, to be control from state or market. Take, for instance, Facebook and Google, two of the majors players in the field of TICs business. Everything you search or post are tracked and used to offer you the products or service that best suit for your interests.

    On the other hand, we have been witnessed several cases of inprisonment of media activists, bloggers, who have been by authoritarian governments because of their opinions expressed in their blogs.

    You also approache governance on Internet. This is crucial issue within ICT4D, given that communication is regarded as a human right. Thus, civil society has been reclaiming its space in internet governance, along with government and private corporations, since the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), the first UN summit dealing with information and communication, held in Geneva in 2003. One can say that this was the first time this issue – Internet governance – was addressed in a globalized perspective, orchestrating a wide range of players from multinational communications corporations to global communications NGOs to grassroots associations.

    • I very much like how you put it, that the “Internet itself is a contested venue,” and of course as you mention, control–freedom is only one of the many dichotomies that can be found ‘within’ it. Another important one of course being between public and private. The idea of the Internet and the many dichotomies that surrounds it (some false ones).. haha. Made me think of this.

      It seems as policy-makers on one hand and perhaps activist (as Anonymous on the other hand). Are unable to meet in some form of synthesis that might be most beneficiary for all. My understanding is that control is necessary to guarantee a form of freedom. Even though Internet might have been created with the idea of freedom the virtual reality to some extent must mirror the ‘real’ reality. There can not be freedom without boundaries.

      What do you think? 🙂

      • Cristina Souza

        Hi, Irina
        It’s very interesting that you brought this out, because last week I had a discussion with a coworker exactly about this topic – freedom/survillance on the Internet. She was totally against any kind of control over Internet to be from government or from market. She told me about a friend of a friend who is hacker and found out a way to erase/block the location of any Internet users around the world, so the authorities cannot track the user. It seems that this guy is wanted by International Police like FBI, Interpol… so on.
        I told her, in spite of my values and believes towards the protection of people’s privacy, against surveillance and opression, and invasive marketing, that I tend to agree that some level of control over internet is necessary, otherwise we will not have means to protect people against some kinds of virtual/internet felonies such as paedophilia, blackmails and so on.

        Of course this marketing invasion annoys me, and i think great there are people trying to minimize it. And i think we have to found a common sense around this issue – privacy on the internet. But, I totally agree with you when you say that there are no freedom without some boundaries.

  2. Mats Kullberg

    Very nice reviews and a lot of food for thoughts.

    Regarding codes I find the following paragraph from Lessigs Code: Version 2.0 (2006) interesting:

    “Code is the ‘built environment´of social life in cyberspace. It is it’s architecture. And if in the middle of the nineteenth century the threat to liberty was norms, and at the start of the twentieth it was state power, and during much of the middle twentieth it was the market, then my argument is that we must come to understand how in the twenty-first century it is a different regulator – code – that should be our current concern”

    According to the Swedish writer and journalist Anders Rydell the one who controls the code also controls the “world”. And that this is something that regimes that practices advanced cencorship are aware of. By blocking sites such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube etc. you are not only taking control over information flows but you are also taking control over the code. Unfortunately this seems to be an effective strategy.

    I also find Cris’ comment on e.g. Googles “control” over users an interesting subject. It’s really amazing that we volontarily hand over our private life to an ongoing market research initiative – sometimes without a blink. Anders Rydell gives, e.g. the example of two persons searching for Sharm el Sheik on Google. One finds informations on beaches to visit and another one gets information about the muslim brotherhood. The ‘problem’ according to Anders or the ‘risk’ is that this is a system where we only hear the voices of our own expectations.

    So I guess my point is that even though ‘freedom’ is something worth struggling for, it is also important to be aware of the fact that the Internet today is controlled, and it’s controlled by a few.

  3. Serdar Temiz

    Interesting discussion what we think free is not free in both meaning. We do not have freedom as we assume and internet is not free of charge . First, governments has right to demand some videos and links to be removed from youtube, and google. google provides list of the countries which had asked for it and then explains number of accepted ones. which means there are “accepted” ones. Second, we are not getting any service for free. The currency for google and facebook is our privacy. we exchange our privacy with private companies in order to use their service. this is also scary situation that we do not have control on the things we share on the net. moreover, what we see (let’s assume google does not block anything!) is still in one way cencored, because it is “personalised”, which means, my previous google searches, clicks, likes at facebook, comments to friends influence what i can see at google search or at facebook feeds. this means that, two people at the same time and location searching for the same words in the same order ends up with different google search results. If you live in south America and has no interest to politics, during arab spring, if you had searched for “Egypt”, you would see only touristic information, where I as a person who is interested would only end up with Arab spring as results.

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