Who’s Who in Internet Politics: Understanding Information Technology Policy

October 17, 2010

There is a political tug-of-war occurring over internet technology issues, with a barrage of new proposals before congress. To help you make sense of the players in this struggle, Robert Atkinson, of The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) has created a succinct, easily understandable primer of ‘who’s who’ in internet politics, and what these groups mean to the future of the internet.

The outcome of the contended issues will effect virtually every aspect of how you use the internet and the level of privacy you have while doing so. As such, understanding the players and the issues – and weighing in with your elected officials and the companies you use – is critical as we each play a role in shaping the future. I consider this document to be a ‘must read’.

The whitepaper is broken into a few key sections (Excerpted from the white paper):

The major players in the IT policy debate that fall into eight basic groups;

  • Cyber-Libertarians – These “Netizens” believe that they launched the Internet revolution. Typified by groups such as the Free Software Foundation and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and dedicated readers of Wired magazine, they believe “information wants to be free” and that all software should be open-source.,
  • Social EngineersThese liberals believe the Internet is empowering but they worry that its growth is having unintended and sometimes dire consequences for society. They invoke the so-called “digital divide,” the purported loss of privacy, net neutrality, or voice concern that corporations are controlling the use of digital content.
  • Free MarketersThis group views the digital revolution as the great third wave of economic innovation in human history (after the agricultural and industrial revolutions). Free marketers envision a dramatically reduced role for government as the Internet empowers people, liberates entrepreneurs, and enables markets.
  • Moderates This group is staunchly and unabashedly pro-IT, seeing it as this era’s driving force for both economic growth and social progress. While they view the Internet as a unique development to which old rules and laws may not apply, they believe appropriate guidelines must be developed if it is to reach its full potential.
  • Moral ConservativesThis group sees the Internet as a dangerous place, a virtual den of iniquity, populated by pornographers, gamblers, child molesters, terrorists, and other degenerates. Unlike the free marketers, the moral conservatives have no qualms about enlisting government to regulate the Internet.
  • Old Economy RegulatorsThis group believes that there is nothing inherently unique about the Internet and that it should be regulated in the same way that government regulates everything else, including past technologies.
  • Tech Companies & Trade AssociationsThis group encompasses a range of organizations from the politically savvy hardware, software and communications giants to Internet start-ups. On the whole, tech companies tend to believe that regulation can be both advantageous and detrimental; they do not fight against all regulations and they do favor the right ones for them, (and occasionally the “wrong” ones for their competitors).
  • Bricks-and-MortarsThis group includes the companies, professional groups, and unions that gain their livelihood from old-economy, face-to-face business transactions. Many of them fear, often correctly, that the Internet is making them obsolete, while others have worked to transform their business models to take advantage of e-commerce.

The dividing lines between the groups

  • Individual Empowerment vs. Societal Benefit
    This line separates groups on the basis of beliefs about the Internet’s overriding purpose. In some ways this is a variant on the classic tension between liberty and equality. However, it goes beyond this to represent the tension between individualism and communitarianism, with the former being a focus on individual rights, and the latter invoking community benefits like economic growth, security, and improved quality of life.
  • Laissez-Faire vs. Government Regulation
    The groups divide along this line over the degree to which the government should impose formal rules on IT and the Internet.

The ongoing policy debates

  • Privacy The collection and use of personal information about Internet users by corporations and government is the source of many heated and emotional debates.
  • Internet Sales TaxesTax policy is controversial in any setting, but perhaps particularly so with regard to the Internet.
  • Copyright ProtectionAs virtually all media have become digital, protecting copyrights has become a nightmare.
  • Net Neutrality What has become a highly contentious issue, net neutrality, refers to the idea that the individual networks collectively forming the Internet be controlled by users rather than by their owners and operators.

To learn more, read Who’s Who in Internet Politics: A Taxonomy of Information Technology Policy