The Internet began as a digital Wild West, lawless and immune from market or government control. Columbia law professor Tim Wu explains not only how important national borders have proven to be, but also why policing them might not be so bad.
BOB GARFIELD: For the first show of the New Year, we thought we'd address the future of the computer – what it can't do, what it can do, what it's about to be able to do.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: On the matter of what it can't do, we turned to Tim Wu, co-author, with Jack Goldsmith, of Who Controls the Internet? What he found is that the computer, or rather the Internet it spawned, cannot be an oasis of freedom without borders or rulers or hardly any rules. President Clinton joked in 1998 that China's effort to control the Internet was like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall, but it turns out that Jell-O is nailable, if you have the will, the technology and the law behind you.
And nations have all three, especially laws, governing everything from copyright to privacy to speech. Then there are the laws of the marketplace, which may be the most powerful of all. Tim Wu joins us now. Tim, welcome back to the show.
TIM WU: Thanks, great to be here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So after studying the question, "Who controls the Internet," you saw time and time again that mostly it's governments, and it's governments with competing ideologies. Could you explain, first of all, how that works and what these competing ideologies are?
TIM WU: Sure. If you look at the history of the Internet, one government, especially the American government, has an enormous role in shaping the nature and the ideology of the network. It is built to be free. It is built to be decentralized. It is built to be an engine of information transmission.
And what I think has changed over the last ten years is that other countries have begun to get into this game and say that they want a say in what the Internet looks like. And they've used the powers that governments have to try and make the Internet more in their image than simply the American image.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And the American ideology that governed the Net was essentially a celebration of free markets and free speech.
TIM WU: And that was supported by the American government and by the American Defense Department, in particular. And what we chronicle in this book are the efforts by other nations to fight that ideology with their own ideas of how things should be regulated.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: France was able to rule that Yahoo couldn't sell Nazi memorabilia in France. China can use American technology, principally, to pursue and jail dissidents online.
TIM WU: Let me talk about Yahoo because that was a big turning point.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
TIM WU: Yahoo was sued in France by a French plaintiff for selling or for being possible to buy Nazi goods from the Yahoo auction site in France. And Yahoo really thought there was no way some court in France was going to tell them what to do, you know.
So they fought the lawsuit. They dismissed it. They just basically ignored it, until finally the French judge ruled that they had violated French law and began threatening Yahoo with really serious fines and possible imprisonment of Yahoo executives if they came anywhere close to France. And suddenly, Yahoo rolled over. And that was a real turning point in the history of the Internet.
And then, you know, things went further. Not only did Yahoo then agree to everything that France said, although they claim not to be, eventually Yahoo, the once agent of free speech, became an agent of thought control for the Chinese government when they began, you know, collecting emails and reporting on dissident activities of their users on behalf of the Chinese government, eventually leading to at least one dissident being thrown in jail for ten years for leaking a memo on a Yahoo email account.
And so, you know, in that story of Yahoo and its transition is really that story of how the Internet's changed over the last ten or fifteen years.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: One sentence in your book that really stood out for me was your observation that the question used to be: how will the Internet affect China. And now the question is: how will China affect the Internet.
TIM WU: I think that's exactly right. They are leading the way in trying to make the Internet much more centralized and much more controllable, something that you can sit in one office and see what's going on and decide what people can and can't see.
I don't intentionally mean to link these two parties in the United States, but the Bell companies and the cable companies, but more Bell, have been fighting also to have a more controlled Internet. They say it'll be safer. There is a big-picture ideological battle going on right now, and it's a big battle between a centralized ideology and a decentralized ideology. And it is being fought out every day, and every time you click on something.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You don't come down on the position that government interference is always bad. In your book, you say it's not only inevitable, it's frequently very, very good.
TIM WU: There's a general reaction that governments- Internet, bad. But you have to ask in the future, you know, if this medium is so important, how do we decide what it's going to be like. People in Germany, for example, or in France, I think, have a right, if they feel like it, to say that we don't want Nazi material sold or displayed on our nets. They have these rights as sovereign nations.
Now, it doesn't agree with the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, but that is the United States Constitution. So, to the degree that we think that governments represent people, it makes sense to me that governments should have the right to have some say over what this network looks like.
Governments do very bad things, but, you know, they also, for basic security and basic functioning of a nation, they're pretty important, and even, you know, libertarians admit that.
And if you look at any business, at some degree they're dependent on property rights, they're dependent on a basic secure environment; they need a financial system. All of these are things where you need some type of government.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And eBay is a perfect example of that.
TIM WU: Yeah, eBay is a great story. I mean, eBay was founded on the idea that you can trust people, and, you know, they will do the right thing and they will pay up their debts. And, generally speaking, that has been true. The feedback system on eBay works most of the time.
But there are some people who are just not interested. They're there to cheat the system, steal money and make off with whatever they can make off with. And what eBay found, slowly, is that its system was not working, and it had to go into direct cooperation with the FBI, with California state police, and try to, as much as it can, catch frauders, arrest them, have them put in jail and threaten anyone who does this.
Right now, I think it has employed over 800 former law enforcement officials who spend their time trying to catch frauders and, you know, cooperate with the FBI to put them in jail.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Eight hundred people, some who -
TIM WU: Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - had investigated organized crime in their previous life for the FBI. And this was a company that started with a nice guy called Uncle Griff, in Vermont, who would personally adjudicate disputes among well-intended parties. Suddenly you have an entire police force, almost like Interpol.
TIM WU: Right. I mean, eBay is just a perfect example of sort of what you need to do to make utopia work.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tim, thanks a lot.
TIM WU: I enjoyed it. Thanks.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tim Wu is the author, with Jack Goldsmith, of Who Controls the Internet?
WNYC 93.9 FM and AM 820 are New York's flagship public radio
stations, broadcasting the finest programs from NPR, PRI and American Public Media, as well as a wide range of award-winning local
programming. WNYC is a division of
New York Public Radio.