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Michel Bauwens (P2P foundation)


In preparation of the June 2008 ICANN congress in Paris, our friend Olivier Auber (along with Olivier Zablocki) is hoping to start a debate and intervention against the increased re-centralization of the internet/web infrastructure, and particularly around the less than democratic current governance processes, see here for the text (in French).

Olivier is hoping and calling for a vigorous debate about his intervention, so here is an initial commentary, in English. The text can be commented upon by paragraph.

Michel Bauwens:

It is important to distinguish between the computing infrastructure and what it enables; the centralized directory of the original Naptster still enabled people to peoplle filesharing; similarly, the hierarchical elements of the internet, and the client-server architecture of the Web, generally speaking still enable an enormous amount of permission-less communication, coordination and action. We have to keep this in mind, in order to correctly judge emancipatory possibilities. Centralized/decentralized features in systems that overall allow distributed action, can be ‘functional’ and actually useful to the efficiency of the system as a whole. At each stage, we have to think about whether the price of that efficiency is, or not, a weapon in the hands of those who would like to control the whole process. I’m saying this to avoid overkill. Indeed, saying that the internet as it know is is a essentially hierarchical system is a simplification. It contains hierarchical, decentralizede ( control powers competing with each other), and distributed (millions of people engaged in permissionless action without regard of the actual structure of the technology) elements, in a unstable configuration, with tendencies for more centralization competing with continued pushes for decentralization (by businesses and individual nation states) and distribution (by p2p sharing and commons communities as well as by individuals). If really it was a hierarchical system, that would mean there would be one boss commanding and controlling the whole social scene of the internet, and that is clearly not the case. In fact you admit this implicitely yourself by stating in the same first paragraph that each level of hierarchy is the subject of a struggle for legitimacy between different forces.

So I would put it differently:

1) the internet is a system combining centralized/decentralized/distributed features which enables a significant amount of distributed action;

2) the technical organization of the internet however, is not distributed, but decentralized, the subject of power struggles by non-elected powers that do not represent the distributed user base, and with very weak mechanisms that would allow autonomous regulation by civil society in the current phase. This is therefore what we should fight for: to increase the mechanisms of distribution, and have both more direct governance at the level of usage, and more representative mechanisms wherever resource mobilization decisions are at play.
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