The Radiant and Infectious Web

In January of 2007, China's president, Hu Jintao, gave a speech before a group of Communist Party officials. His subject was the Internet. "Strengthening network culture construction and management," he assured the assembled bureaucrats, "will help extend the battlefront of propaganda and ideological work. It is good for increasing the radiant power and infectiousness of socialist spiritual growth."

If I had read those words a few years earlier, they would have struck me as ludicrous. It seemed so obvious that the Internet stood in opposition to the kind of centralized power symbolized by China's regime. A vast array of autonomous nodes, not just decentralized but centerless, the Net was a technology of personal liberation, a force for freedom.

I now see that I was naive. Like many others, I mistakenly interpreted a technical structure as a metaphor for human liberty. In recent years, we have seen clear signs that while the Net may be a decentralized communications system, its technical and commercial workings actually promote the centralization of power and control. Look, for instance, at the growing concentration of web traffic. During the five years from 2002 through 2006, the number of Internet sites nearly doubled, yet the concentration of traffic at the ten most popular sites nonetheless grew substantially, from 31% to 40% of all page views, according to the research firm Compete.

Or look at how Google continues to expand its hegemony over web searching. In March 2006, the company's search engine was used to process a whopping 58% of all searches in the United States, according to Hitwise. By November 2007, the figure had increased yet again, to 65%. The results of searches are also becoming more, not less, homogeneous. Do a search for any common subject, and you're almost guaranteed to find Wikipedia at or near the top of the list of results. 

It's not hard to understand how the Net promotes centralization. For one thing, its prevailing navigational aids, such as search engine algorithms, form feedback loops. By directing people to the most popular sites, they make those sites even more popular. On the web as elsewhere, people stream down the paths of least resistance.

The predominant means of making money on the Net — collecting small sums from small transactions — also promotes centralization. It is only by aggregating vast quantities of content, data, and traffic that businesses can turn large profits. That's why companies like Microsoft and Google have been so aggressive in buying up smaller web properties. Google, which has been acquiring companies at the rate of about one a week, has disclosed that its ultimate goal is to "store 100% of user data."

As the dominant web companies grow, they are able to gain ever larger economies of scale through massive capital investments in the "server farms" that store and process online data. That, too, promotes consolidation and centralization. Executives of Yahoo and Sun Microsystems have recently predicted that control over the net's computing infrastructure will ultimately lie in the hands of five or six organizations.

To what end will the web giants deploy their power? They will, of course, seek to further their own commercial or political interests by monitoring, analyzing, and manipulating the behavior of "users." The connection of previously untethered computers into a single programmable system has created "a new apparatus of control," to quote NYU's Andrew Galloway. Even though the Internet has no center, technically speaking, control can be wielded, through software code, from anywhere. What's different, in comparison to the physical world, is that acts of control are more difficult to detect.

So it's not Hu Jintao who is deluded in believing that the net might serve as a powerful tool for central control. It is those who assume otherwise. I used to count myself among them. But I've changed my mind.