The War Over Control Of The Net Is A War Over Information Advantage

Opinion

Throughout history, you can observe that many groups have fought over the information advantage - to know more about other people than those others know in return. Whoever has held the information advantage has usually risen to power.

We know little of spycraft before ancient times, but we do know that covert messaging was common in the Roman Empire. One well-documented method was to shave a slave’s head, tattoo a message into the scalp, let the hair grow back, and send the slave on foot to the recipient, presumably carrying a decoy message.

(And you were complaining that PGP messaging takes too long.)

It’s possible to assume that the concept of “information advantage” arose as soon as civilizations broke beyond tribal stage. We can observe groups spying on each other in all parts of recorded history, and even though the winners write the (surviving) history books, we can see that those who knew more were also the ones who came out on top.

There are many reasons for this. One is the straightforward concept of military intel: if you’re at war with somebody and know about their weaknesses, you can exploit them and get the upper hand. Most of the net generation are perfectly familiar with the concept of the Fog of War, and the value of sending scout drones early in a StarCraft game.

But it’s more subtle than that. If you establish yourself as knowing more than others, for whatever reason, other people will start asking you for information. Information – perceived truth – will flow from you to others. This is one of the most powerful positions somebody can be in; it establishes the power of narrative, and it lets a group essentially dictate truth, enlighten people, or poison the news-well according to what fits their interest on any particular day, as long as they are perceived to still hold the information advantage.

It’s easy to observe that governments have had this role. “Our satellite imagery shows X, Y, and Z on the ground in Farawaystan.” You can’t really dispute it, you have to take that government at their word, simply because you don’t have any expensive satellite network of your own. It’s quite outside of your budget range. Or rather, you had to take them at their word: you don’t anymore. All of a sudden, you have distant acquaintances on the ground in Farawaystan who are confirming or disproving the statement, and usually doing so within minutes.

It’s not hard to see what a power shift this creates – how the many are taking the power away from the few. It used to take an enormous nation-state-level machine to provide information detail at the satellite-level degree; today, better information can be obtained by the informal network that is the internet.

Putting it another way: the net generation, the global net generation, has taken the information advantage from the world’s governments, using nothing but their everyday presence and practically no resources at all. And those dethroned governments are absolutely furious about it, and are turning to poisoning the news-well and destroying the net’s utility value by introducing mass surveillance and forcing the network operators’ dirty collaboration in a last-ditch attempt to regain that information advantage – knowing what everybody’s saying, thinking, planning, discussing.

It’s not going to help. That cat is out of the bag. But it’s going to be a fight.

The copyright industry is only a small part of this. It’s a really annoying small part of this, but the picture is still much bigger. There’s a reason the copyright industry gets so much governmental support (from the United States) when it tries to assert its continued power of narrative, despite YouTube and similar sites long having disproven the notion that you need a governmentally-awarded private monopoly – “copyright” – for culture to be created.

(YouTube alone now has 300 hours of video uploaded every minute. In other words, it’s providing 18,000 24/7 television channel equivalents. Granted, those “channels” are of widely varying quality, so they’re quite exactly like yesterday’s TV concept.)

We still need to fight for our basic civil liberties. But the power shift happening right now is immense – far beyond the question of where some entertainment studio is going to find its future revenue.

About The Author

Rick Falkvinge is a regular columnist on TorrentFreak, sharing his thoughts every other week. He is the founder of the Swedish and first Pirate Party, a whisky aficionado, and a low-altitude motorcycle pilot. His blog at falkvinge.net focuses on information policy.

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