Much has been written about the current state and future prospects of the internet in recent years. In The Closing of the Net, Monica Horten, who served as an independent expert on the Council of Europe’s committee of experts on cross-border flow of internet traffic and internet freedom, addresses an aspect that is rarely considered in sufficient depth: the role of corporate lobbyists in manipulating politics and law. Horten does this with a deep and detailed analysis and she does so with gusto, making this a book well worth reading.
The basis for her analysis is the late international relations scholar Susan Strange’s concept of structural power. As Horten puts it: “the Internet corporations seek to shape law and policy in order to defend their structural power”.
Net neutrality, government surveillance by the US and others, the tailoring and personalisation approach, privacy, piracy, the power of what might loosely be described as the “copyright lobby”, content filtering, blocking and censorship, the highly contentious trade agreement TTIP, cloud computing and more are brought into Horten’s argument. In each example, the role of corporate lobbyists – and their interaction with other powers such as the US government’s surveillance services – is explored in detail.
In one of the book’s best chapters, Horten’s description of the lobbying process surrounding data protection reform in the European Union shows how lobbyists work in practice – and it is a cautionary tale. More than 3,000 amendments to the General Data Protection Regulation were put forward, drafted by lobbyists and presented directly to MEPs, before the regulation was finally agreed in late 2015. Debatable tactics such as working through “coalitions and entities with names that exude gravitas and public-interest concerns, such as the Future of Privacy Forum” were employed not only here but in almost every example that Horten considers.
Many readers will be familiar with some of these stories, but as Horten reveals, it is only when they are considered together that the full picture begins to become clear. This is what makes her book both original and valuable. She shows how the different power groups interact – from the old-fashioned telecommunications companies and “creative industries” to the new internet giants, cloud providers and so forth – and how in practice it is individuals and individual freedoms that suffer. When governments get involved, it is, by Horten’s account, rarely to the benefit of citizens, both because the interests of corporate lobbyists and governments often coincide and because the lobbies have already done so much work. “Corporations wield influence”, Horten tells us, “due to long-term conditioning of government institutions.”
“Does politics shape the Internet or does the Internet shape politics?” is the question posed by Horten at the start of her final chapter. It is not an easy question, and as in so many situations it is easier to make a diagnosis than to find a cure. Horten somewhat tentatively suggests a way forward. “Is there a case to impose public-interest duties on providers? If we argue that the corporations are in the position of providing public services, then the answer should be in the affirmative.”
Horten’s idea is attractive, but unless something dramatic changes it is hard to see how it could come to pass, and the ramifications – not really explored here – might be worse than the problem itself, as determining who decides what amounts to the public interest is deeply problematic. If as a solution it seems unlikely to work, that does not stop it being an issue that we should explore: The Closing of the Net is a valuable step in that exploration.
Paul Bernal is lecturer in IT, IP and media law, University of East Anglia School of Law, and author of Internet Privacy Rights: Rights to Protect Autonomy (2014).
The Closing of the Net
By Monica Horten
Polity, 200pp, £50.00 and £15.99
ISBN 9781509506880 and 6897
Published 25 March 2016