The Internet and its Implications for Anarchy
The Internet is the single largest artificial construct ever built. In its current form, it encompasses virtually the whole of the globe’s telecommunications infrastructure, a vast digital computer network. TV is probably the largest hold-out, but the way things are developing it won’t remain so for long. It took a while, but today the Internet Protocol suite lies at the heart of a technical system that is vital for developed societies.
This has implications that most people don’t understand. This is because most people don’t understand the Internet. That, in turn, is because most people are never exposed to the core of the Internet, but instead contentedly surf the web and read e-mail. Increasingly, they read e-mail on the web. What most people see when they make use of the Internet is a collection of fiefdoms, where you can gain access to services only on the sufferance of autocrats with extensive Terms of Service.
That’s not the Internet. That’s something that has been built on top of the Internet. And this layer, built by the corporations and old interests, is doing its level best to hide and suffocate the layer below. Why? Because the Internet is not only anarchic, its very design is anarchist. The unofficial motto of the informal (but very real) organisation that designs the Internet is: “We reject kings, presidents and voting. We believe in rough consensus and running code.” At the technical level, the Internet consists of autonomous systems federated together using common protocols and neutral information registries. By design, any host is able to contact any other, although a number of practical concerns make this impossible today. This should not be surprising: Large-scale transport and communication systems have long been federated without any sort of central control. Kropotkin pointed as much out when highlighting the examples of the railways and postal system as functioning federations. This also sets the Internet apart from various other proposed network schemes, many of which had military or corporate sponsors with deep pockets. Anarchists should not hesitate to point this out. “Our ideas on how to organise projects,” we should say, “are not unrealistic. In fact, they have won out against much better funded opponents when what matters is technical merit.” The Internet is perhaps the ultimate demonstration that the organisational forms of anarchism are not unrealistic pipe dreams, and that the real reason society is organised as it is must be found in something other than the deficiency of those forms.
There are a few ways in which general users can still see the full power of the underlying layer. Because so many user-visible applications don’t follow the model fully, a new name was invented for the ones who did: Peer to peer, or P2P. The most notable application of peer-to-peer applications today is for filesharing. And it is here that we most clearly see the wrath directed at the Internet’s design by established interests. Not unreasonably: No established distribution channel can compete with the efficiency of internet-based, unrestricted redistribution. And so, large industries have begun flailing around, looking to get the state to intervene and protect their business. In this, they draw the attention and interest of others who need to gain some measure of control over the Internet. Spies, morality guards and wannabe watchers and censors of every description pour out of the woodwork; in the liberal democracies of the west, but no less in the various dictatorships and strong-arm regimes of the global south. They are seeking, in various forms, to enact legislation to protect the status quo and to enshrine the ability of governments to listen in on and control the communications of their citizens; those rules are enacted, usually, either to “protect innovation” or “prevent child pornography”. Fighting those attempts has been the preserve of the technologists, but it shouldn’t be. Defeating them is important for all liberal-minded people; for radicals, it should be doubly so. Properly understood, the Internet is the radical’s greatest tool; not only for communication, but as a practical example that acephalous organisation, while anarchistic, is not anachronistic.