An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Winter 2016

Degrees of Freedom, Dimensions of Power

Yochai Benkler

The original Internet design combined technical, organizational, and cultural characteristics that decentralized power along diverse dimensions. Decentralized institutional, technical, and market power maximized freedom to operate and innovate at the expense of control. Market developments have introduced new points of control. Mobile and cloud computing, the Internet of Things, fiber transition, big data, surveillance, and behavioral marketing introduce new control points and dimensions of power into the Internet as a social-cultural-economic platform. Unlike in the Internet's first generation, companies and governments are well aware of the significance of design choices, and are jostling to acquire power over, and appropriate value from, networked activity. If we are to preserve the democratic and creative promise of the Internet, we must continuously diagnose control points as they emerge and devise mechanisms of recreating diversity of constraint and degrees of freedom in the network to work around these forms of reconcentrated power.

YOCHAI BENKLER is the Berkman Professor of Entrepreneurial Legal Studies at Harvard Law School, and serves as Faculty Co-Director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. He is the author of The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom (2006), which won awards from the American Sociological Association and the American Political Science Association.

On March 2000, AOL tried to pull a program that two of its employees had released online twenty-four hours earlier. Gnutella was a peer-to-peer file-sharing program, and AOL was concerned about copyright liability. But Gnutella was free software, and it had been released, along with its source code, under the GNU General Public License. Gnutella was quickly adopted and developed by diverse groups, becoming the basis for a range of peer-to-peer (P2P) networks that either used or improved upon its source code. Technical architecture, cultural practice, social production, market structure, and timing had prevented AOL from halting the development of Gnutella.

Fourteen years later, in February 2014, Apple’s app store rejected a game that mocked North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Apple already had a history of blocking applications of which it disapproved: cartoons that mocked President Obama, an app for browsing State Department cables on WikiLeaks, or a game that criticized the company’s treatment of its workers in iPhone manufacturing processes. Initially, Apple had also forced Skype to block usage on 3G mobile networks, rejected the Google Voice app, and disabled Google Maps on the iPhone. Here developments enabled .  .  .

To read this essay or subscribe to Dædalus, visit the Dædalus access page
Access now