Some Thoughts on Rob Atkinson’s Who’s Who in Internet Politics

by on October 5, 2010 · 6 comments

Today it was my pleasure to take part in an Information Technology and Innovation Foundation discussion about Rob Atkinson’s interesting new white paper, “Who’s Who in Internet Politics: A Taxonomy of Information Technology Policy Perspectives .”  [You can find the video of the event here or embeded down below.]  Rob divides the information technology landscape into 8 tribes: cyber-libertarians, social engineers, free marketers, moderates, moral conservatives, old economy regulators, tech companies and trade associations, and bricks-and-mortars. Most of those are fairly self-explanatory, but during my response time, I pushed back on a few of these groupings.

First, I pointed out that there really didn’t seem to much of a difference between “cyber-libertarians” and “free marketers.”  Of course, part of the reason I feel this way is because I believe Rob is improperly equating cyber-libertarianism with Internet exceptionalism.  I’ve pointed out the distinction between the two in this essay with Berin Szoka.  We note that Internet exceptionalists are essentially first cousins to cyber-libertarians in that both groups believe that the Internet has changed culture and history profoundly and is deserving of special care before governments intervene. But cyber-libertarianism, properly understood, is something more than just special treatment for the Net.  It refers to the belief that individuals—acting in whatever capacity they choose (as citizens, consumers, companies, or collectives)—should be at liberty to pursue their own tastes and interests online. Again, please see “Cyber-Libertarianism: The Case for Real Internet Freedom” by Berin and me for more details.

Second, I argued that Rob had too narrowly defined the conservative category by labeling it “moral conservatives.”  He should have instead just called it “conservatives” or “social order” because there is a rising group of conservative thinking out there that care about more than just the Net’s impact on morality.  In particular, there’s growing concern among some conservatives about safety and stability (especially cyber-warfare) and that isn’t exactly a “moral” concern.  So, Rob needs to broaden that category a bit.

Third, I love Rob’s moniker for the “social engineers” camp and I think that’s a useful way of describing what groups like Free Press, Public Knowledge, EPIC, Center for Digital Democracy advocate, and the way that scholars like Lawrence Lessig and Tim Wu think.  Like self-styled technocratic philosopher kings, this crowd really does want to engineer the Internet to achieve their various preferred ends/outcomes.  But I suggested to Rob that not all social engineers are equal.  For example, he places both Free Press and Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) in the “social engineers” camp.  But there is a world of difference between these two groups. While I have occasional differences with CDT on some policy issues, the organization generally focus on user empowerment and has a healthy skepticism about over-zealous government regulation of the Net.  Free Press, by contrast, might best be thought of as cyber-Stalinists.  They are about one thing and one thing only: control. They want all-encompassing government control of almost every layer of the Net, the mediasphere, journalism, … you name it.  There is social engineering and then there is social engineering, and Free Press is taking it to an almost totalitarian extreme. CDT absolutely does not belong on the same list as Free Press and, because of that, Rob needs to more carefully consider how broad the “social engineer” camp is or at least who he places in it.

Fourth, I find Rob’s “moderates” category to be a bit too amorphous. It’s also an ever-changing one.  It can change from day to day and from issue to issue. I’m not denying there exists a handful of people who would probably fit this billing on most issues — and Rob Atkinson himself is probably one of them — but I still think it’s too nebulous of a category.

A few other general thoughts about Rob’s taxonomy.  First, given the interesting intersections among some of these groups, I would have liked to have seen Rob construct some Venn diagrams illustrating where overlapping relationships exist. For example, there’s much common ground between old economy regulators, bricks-and-mortars operators, and social engineers.  And, as I already explained, there’s almost perfect overlap between the cyber-libertarian and free marketeer camps.   So, Venn diagrams might have helped illustrate that.  While this isn’t an exact science, I think that would have been useful for didactic purposes.

Alternatively, Rob should have thought about constructing a spectrum and plotting the various camps or players along it. In fact, he does do a very nice job of suggesting to possible spectrum “dividing lines”: (1) individual empowerment vs. social benefit and (2) laissez-faire vs. government regulation.  Indeed, one of those could have been and X axis and another the Y axis.  Then, for a 3-dimensional matrix, he could have added “optimist vs. pessimist” as a possible additional dividing line.  As I’ve noted in my essay on “Are You An Internet Optimist or Pessimist? The Great Debate over Technology’s Impact on Society,” this represents another major fissure in tech policy debates today.  Of course this is fairly profound dividing line with the pessimists virtually rejecting the entire cyber-enterprise and digital progress altogether. Nonetheless, some of those “old economy regulators” and “bricks and mortar” people in Rob’s taxonomy would definitely fall on the Net pessimist side of such a spectrum, so it would be useful to consider it as another dividing line or axis.

Finally, I would have liked to see Rob spend some time talking about who he thought was winning this intellectual war. He doesn’t really comment on that.  As I see it, the “social engineers” currently have the advantage, especially in academia. During response time, Rob generally agreed with me on that front.  I also pointed out that some of those social engineers in academia — especially the Berkman Center crew (Lessig, Zittrain) and Tim Wu — take a very gloomy view of things and that they are really articulating a different variant of Internet pessimism. Namely, while they embrace the Internet and digital technologies, they argue that they are “dying” due to a lack of sufficient care or collective oversight.  In particular, they fear that the “open” Internet and “generative” digital systems are giving way to closed, proprietary systems, typically run by villainous corporations out to erect walled gardens and quash our digital liberties.  Thus, they are pessimistic about the long-term survival of the Net and would result to various social engineering tactics to put it back on their preferred course.  I talked about this lugubrious worldview — and why it was so misguided — at greater length in my recent essay on “Two Schools of Internet Pessimism” and I’ve just finished a longer paper on the issue.  So, more to come on that front.

Anyway, for now, go read Rob Atkinson’s “Who’s Who in Net Politics” paper.  It’s terrific despite the small nitpicks I’ve raised here.

Previous post:

Next post: