13th Oct2012

Book Review – Access Contested

by alexcarson

Book Link: http://web.idrc.ca/openebooks/507-6/

In the last several years digital rights have become increasingly prominent in American political and social discourse, but the debate is far from new. While acts like SOPA and PIPA would have been inconceivable just a few years ago, other nations in other parts of the globe were already engaged in heated – and sometimes violent – contests over whose interests are represented on the world wide web and who has control over what content can and can not be shared and what people can and can not do on the internet. Access Contested: Security, Identity, and Resistance in Asian Cyberspace – edited by Ronald Deibert, John Palfrey, Rafal Rohozinski, and Jonathan Zittrain – is an anthology of writings in a format reminiscent of university textbooks that utilizes academic work done in East Asia – a region where internet access has been a controversial issue among its diverse nations – to paint a picture of the internet which portrays the actors and the consequences of an increasingly contested world wide web.

The first two chapters of Access Contested are essential to understanding the remainder of the book. The editors use these chapters to establish the theoretical framework of internet development that they are working in and key terms that are utilized throughout the rest of the book. The authors of the chapters establish brief histories of internet use and regulation, from the earliest days when the internet was virtually free of outside regulation to more recent times when state actors have begun to refine their methods of controlling behavior on the internet and using it as a tool to enforce their authority. Both arrive at the same fundamental conclusion: that the internet is a space that is contested between a myriad of different forces all with their own way of using the internet, their own agendas, and their own views for how the internet should grow in the future. Both strike an optimistic tone, acknowledging that state control of the internet have turned the medium into an arm of state power but holding that the contesting of such power by other parties may pave the way for a better future for all involved. While I don’t quite share the optimism, both of these chapters present the anthology’s fundamental working theories in a simple manner that holds the reader’s interest, going into detail on the manner in which stakeholders interact without delving into overly-technical jargon which I have seen other internet studies go into to the detriment of the accessibility of their work.

The remaining eight chapters of the book utilize case studies from nations across the region to identify the various stakeholders in the contesting of the internet, the agendas at work, the means by which states can engage or repress their constituent people over the internet, and the role of the private sector in the regulation of the medium. Utilizing case studies from Malaysia, Thailand, the Phillipines, Burma, and, of course, China, Access Contested uses each nation and each circumstance to view the contests of the internet in a different light. Where in Malaysia the authorities have utilized the internet in order to reinforce patriarchal cultural norms, Thailand uses it to surveill dissidence against the King and China contests the very architecture and power structure of the internet on a global scale in order to better control its own cyberspace. Each article looks at the issues through a different light, and I was very pleased to see that despite the focus on East Asia many were critical of what they saw as similar systems of control in supposedly liberal Western and democratic states. The chapters succeed in painting a picture of the internet as a dynamic force in which virtually every group of people – connected or not – has a stake and has interests to be promoted or protected.

The second half of Access Contested is a series of profiles on the nations of East Asia. Each contains the nation’s vital information, internet regulatory framework, and other issues which impact how its people and the state relate to cyberspace. In its format as a textbook, I see these profiles as being extremely useful for encouraging independent exercises in a college class and for project-based assignments in both addressing current issues regarding the internet in each country and hypothesizing as to those which may impact them in the future.

In a post-Arab Spring, post-SOPA digitized world, it is essential that researchers understand the internet not as a monolithic system or entity, but as a architectural framework in which different, competing social, cultural, and economic influences are in contest with each other for control over this increasingly-vital digital space. Access Contested is contemporary, it is compelling, it is accessible, and the picture of the internet it paints opens the door to new ideas and new research as we come to terms with what the internet was, what it becomes, and how it is being used in the twenty first century.

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