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Networks of Power, Degrees of Freedom

By YOCHAI BENKLER. Harvard Law School

International Journal of Communication - 8 February 2011

The article offers a conceptual framework for describing freedom and power in terms of human behavior in multiple overlapping systems. Power and freedom describe relations of influence and susceptibility over the principles, policies, perceptions and preferences; outcomes; and configurations available to human beings, in each case as characterized by the affordances and constraints of an agent in context of multiple overlapping systems. Networks characterize systems while keeping classes of discrete entities and relations between them explicit. Freedom and power are affected by the degree of (a) openness, the extent to which individuals can bob and weave between networks to achieve their desired behaviors, perceptions, or outcomes, and (b) completeness, the degree to which they can maneuver within a network to achieve those results; and (c) configuration, pathways for the flow of influence or its avoidance. The paper uses examples from Web-based music, video, and news reporting to explain these concepts.

On July 12, 2007, two Apache attack helicopters fired on a group of individuals in Iraq, killing about 12. Among the dead were a Reuters photographer and his driver. Reuters tried to get access to the video footage from the helicopter gun camera to investigate what had happened and whether, indeed, there was a threat to the helicopters that would have explained the shooting. The U.S. government successfully resisted information requests for recordings of the events. On April 5, 2010, a Web site, WikiLeaks, made available what is considered an authentic version of the video. In it, and on its soundtrack, the helicopter pilots exhibit trigger-happy, aggressive behavior and they seem to take pleasure in hunting down their targets, some of whom appear to be unarmed civilians. After the video and its contents became front page news in all the major papers, WikiLeaks and its founder-leader, Julian Assange, were considered journalistic heroes and romantic rebels. The site itself is an international operation with a handful of full-time volunteers, several hundred occasional volunteer technical experts, and an operating budget of a few hundred thousand dollars a year raised from donations from around the world. It runs on servers that are themselves located around the world in more or less congenial jurisdictions and is dedicated to providing a censorship-resistant platform for disseminating information about governments and companies. In late May 2010, an Army intelligence analyst, Bradley Manning, wasarrested for having leaked the video to WikiLeaks. His identity was discovered because a hacker, Adrian Lamo, had approached the Army with information about Manning, after, apparently, the intelligence analyst had told Lamo that he had leaked the video as part of asking the hacker’s advice on what to do with large caches of classified materials that he had in his possession and wanted to leak. Lamo felt that Manning presented a security threat to the United States and needed to be stopped. As of this writing, there is no public record of any person associated with the July 2007 attack having been investigated, nor is there any indication of a review of the rules of engagement or a similar substantive response oriented toward changing the practices observed in the video (BBC, 2010; McGreal, 2010a, 2010b; Poulsen & Zetter, 2010).

This bare-bones version of the story helps to highlight the way in which the Internet has created new kinds of freedom and power—here, I use what I take to be colloquial meanings of the terms, but later I will define them more precisely—and how it has done so at the intersection of several dimensions of power in several systems. Twenty years ago, such a video could only have been disseminated or leaked in a medium with the potential to exert public-political force through a mainstream media outlet, primarily one with a video delivery platform, such as a television station or cable news channel. While video cassettes were available, copying of one of the originals would have been cumbersome. Making many successive copies of a hard-to-interpret original and disseminating them would have been extremely difficult. A decade before that, it would have simply been impossible. Effective distribution, then, would have depended on access to one of a relatively small number of outlets. These, in turn, were constructed in organizational forms, with editorial control that would have placed a very limited number of individuals in the position to decide whether to distribute the report of the video. These individuals, in turn, were located in a social and institutional system that would have given them certain capabilities and constraints. In the United States, for example, access to a court system that was organizationally and institutionally independent enough to provide internal limits on state power through application of an extensive first amendment doctrine would have afforded the media outlets freedom to publish, if they chose to do so. The decision would also have been influenced by the internal dynamics of the professional press, and what counts as good and respectable behavior, as well as on the interpersonal ties and longterm source dependence on people who occupy positions of power, and who may (or may not) have successfully persuaded the editors with the power to decide to avoid distribution of the video. The courses of action open to the soldier who came into possession of the video were limited to operating through the set of systems that could effectively disseminate the video; these systems, in turn, had certain affordances and constraints that were different from those that characterize the Net and WikiLeaks. In the new context, WikiLeaks provided the soldier—as it did the broader set of people seeking to critique the U.S. military intervention in Iraq—with new forms and pathways for discovering and disseminating information about the military, and new ways of mobilizing public opinion to critique the military rules of engagement, both of which provided dimensions of power to these people that were not previously available to them.

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