Wednesday, March 24, 2010

When the public controls the printing presses and corporations have more 'citizens' than countries, who holds the power?

There are now over 1.7 billion internet users in the world, sending more than 270 billion emails each day.

Over 400 million people use Facebook each month (about 50% of them daily).

Over 50 million Tweets are sent each day and over 75 million people visited Twitter's site in January 2010.

There are approximately 3 billion searches per day via Google, 280 million each day on Yahoo and 80 million each day on Bing.

There are in excess of 133 million blogs, posting over 600,000 posts per day (600,001 including this post!)

Over 24 hours of video, mostly user-generated, is uploaded to Youtube each minute (or 34,560 hours of footage - nearly 4 years of continual viewing - per day).

This is a lot of content and connections between people outside any formal governance structures.

The companies involved are very influential. The giants, Facebook and Google, anecdotally each hold more than 10% share of global internet traffic. The companies they vanquished, MySpace and Yahoo, remain major destinations with hundreds of millions of users around the world.

To-date these companies have abided by the laws of sovereign states - censoring content or complying with local regulation as required.

However what happens when these companies, or a large group of enfranchised internet using citizens, refuses to play by a government's rules?

We've seen one of the first signs of this in the recent encounter between Google and China - the world's most trafficked website versus the world's most populated country (and home of more internet users than any other nation).

In case you've not been following the story, in January this year Google publicly revealed that the company had been hacked in a highly sophisticated and co-ordinated attack who stole intellectual property and read the gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists. They announced that 33 other companies (including Adobe) had also been hacked (most of whom have not publicly admitted it) and that they had traced the hackers back to mainland China (even launching a counter-attack).

After the attack Google announced it was reconsidering whether to remain in China, where it held about 30% search share through The company subsequently announced it would no longer agree to censor Google results in compliance with Chinese law.

On Monday this week Google announced it was ceasing to censor search results on behalf of the Chinese government and redirected its Chinese servers to Hong Kong (which, while part of China, is not under the same censorship provisions), but kept its sales and research functions in China - for now.

While Google users in China will now be able to search for whatever they choose (such as Tiananmen Square), their search results will still be filtered by the 'great firewall of China' - however they may now see which pages were blocked, rather than not receiving any results at all. And there may be ways they can outflank the firewall to see page contents.

A storm in a teacup? This would never happen outside China?

Maybe not.

Google has already flagged a similar position in Australia. Google officially refused a public request by Broadband Minister Stephen Conroy to self-censor YouTube to comply with the mandatory internet filter that the Government plans to introduce.

Perhaps the withdrawal of Google from China should be seen as one of the first statements that global companies are no longer bound by sovereign nations who ask more than they are willing to give up.

Groups of internet users are also beginning to challenge sovereign authorities in new ways. From the Filipino use of SMS texting in the 1990s student protests to the use of Twitter last year to organise and publish information about protests around the recent Iran Presidential election, individuals are using modern technology to protest against government positions.

Even more recently, I learnt in Hong Kong of recent protests about the route of a high-speed train to Beijing, which were partially coordinated by Twitter using the Hong Kong government's free wi-fi hotspots.

So what is the effect on sovereign nations when companies and individuals can self-organise, share and reveal information across borders in ways that governments cannot block (without turning off the internet and crippling their own operations)?

What happens to society's compact that governments can create laws and people and corporations will follow them when it is so easy to move your operation to another jurisdiction and continue operating in defiance to local laws?

Frankly I don't know - and doubt that anyone today can accurately predict the long-term outcome.

However it is becoming clear that while the world still labours under 18th century concepts of statehood and governance, but individuals and corporations use 21st century tools to communicate, collaborate and operate, there is an inherent tension between citizens and governments that will continue to grow.

1 comment:

  1. Martin Stewart-WeeksApril 2, 2010 at 11:31 PM

    Is it too naive to think that the seeds of the new governance at which this great post is hinting lie, at least in some measure, within the communication revolution which is driving the need it in the first place?

    The key is transparency and accountability...what is instructive in the post is the extent to which it is possible to even report what has been happening, which of course if a function of the new tools and platforms that you talk about.

    But I agree it's a very tough, but central question about how these tools and capabilities shift the way we think about governance, which means thinking again about fundamental issues like representation, transparency, accountability, power, authority and trust.

    Many of the assumptions and practices that underpinned the old settlement are unraveling but without a clear sense of what will, or should replace them. World government or larger and bolder supra-national institutions or rules may not be either appropriate or helpful. I'm not sure what the answer will be except to assume, as I said at the start, that something about this new networked, transparent and open world is going to be as much a part of the solution as it is a part of the problems you've identified.