Hayek, like most of the leading intellectuals of his time, did not foresee the emergence of the Internet—the quintessential Hayekian spontaneous order. As a decentralized communication system facilitating the sending and receiving of messages by billions of people, the Internet has greatly shifted the balance of power away from governments and toward sovereign individuals. Even in its early days, the Internet played a vital role in bringing about the downfall of the Soviet Union's government. Since then, it has catalyzed tremendous economic, social, and political liberation in countries ranging from Cuba to the United States.
While governments have tried to use modern communication technologies to monitor and regulate private individuals, their efforts are doomed to failure stemming from a much more powerful and competent market response.
Hayek Did Not Know the Internet
When Friedrich Hayek's The Constitution of Liberty was first published in 1960, the Internet did not exist; nor did its military predecessor, ARPANET, which was initiated in 1969. Fifteen years after the horrors of World War II, the means by which the totalitarian regimes of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union used mass broadcasting technology to indoctrinate their people were still recent memories. During the Nuremberg Trials, Albert Speer himself expressed the Nazi regime's effectiveness at using technology to spread propaganda: "Through technical devices like the radio and the loudspeaker, eighty million people were deprived of independent thought. It was thereby possible to subject them to the will of one man." Faced with such facts, Hayek understandably feared future uses of mass broadcasting technology.
Indeed, in a world where the only mass communication technologies were radio and films, the scales of power were shifted toward totalitarian governments and away from sovereign individuals. According to Christopher Kedzie, "Since traditional broadcast media are located closest to the dictator's optimum they are almost certain to be employed as a powerful political weapon."
Kedzie arranges technologies along a two-dimensional continuum, with the number of message recipients from the technology on the horizontal axis and the number of message originators on the vertical axis. Technologies like radio and television—especially in their early days—are particularly conducive to government propaganda, since the number of message originators is few while the number of message recipients can be in the millions. Kedzie writes that "The optimal position, from the dictator's perspective, would be in the bottom right-hand corner where everybody receives all of the leader's dictates and none from anyone else."
"Kedzie arranges technologies along a two-dimensional
Totalitarian states with the resources to control the small number of radio broadcasts and films in existence during the 1930s and 1940s could influence their subjects without major competition from their nonstate opponents.
Hayek was not alone in fearing the combination of technology and government. In 1984, published in 1949, George Orwell portrayed an all-encompassing surveillance state that completely controlled not only the present flow of information but also the historical record. But Orwell also lacked the benefit of seeing subsequent technological developments and the cost reductions they entailed for ordinary private individuals. In the words of Richard Muller, "Orwell's error was remarkably simple: he assumed that only the state would be able to afford high-tech—an assumption shared by virtually every prophet, science-fiction writer, and futurist. But it has proven to be wrong."
We do not live in an Orwellian world today, in large part because of Moore's Law: "In 1965, Gordon Moore, the co-founder of Intel Corp., predicted that, every 18 months, the processing power of a silicon chip would double as transistor density increased, a forecast that has proven uncannily accurate." This exponential growth in processing power has enabled cutting-edge technology to spread beyond the purview of governments and into the hands of over a billion individuals around the world.
Indeed, even technologies that were originally the province of governments tend to migrate gradually but inexorably into the private realm. Through the 1970s, ARPANET evolved from a military communication tool to an increasingly sophisticated private information-sharing system. According to Peter Klein, "By the early 1980s, private use of the ARPA communications protocol—what is now called 'TCP/IP'—far exceeded military use." In 1984, the military handed over control of the Internet to the National Science Foundation; just ten years later, the complete privatization of the Internet's basic infrastructure took place. The story of the Internet is one of piecewise relinquishment of government control and empowerment of private individuals and organizations.
Unlike early radio and television, technologies with many possible message originators—such as the telephone and especially the Internet—are highly damaging to powerful governments, because they introduce competition into the market of ideas.
The telephone has its weaknesses; the recipients of any given message are few, and it is possible to wiretap telephone lines and restrict their number—as the Soviet government tried to do prior to Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of Glasnost (openness).
The Internet, however, is far more resilient. Unlike earlier broadcasting technologies, the Internet has no central nexus from which it can be effectively controlled and restricted. Tim Swanson notes that the Internet "is an amalgamation, an assortment of heterogeneous computer systems with varying capabilities linked together by various protocols." It is impossible to silence the Internet by seizing pieces
of Internet hardware—even in a concerted effort to do so within any given country. In Kedzie's words, "Neither the autonomy nor the influence of electronic networks is constrained by national boundaries." It is entirely possible for a political dissident in one country to have his website hosted in a different part of the world—far from the reach of the authorities against whom he writes and speaks.
Furthermore, the ease of republishing one's material online ensures its permanence and immunity to effective censorship. I have personally observed the futility of even one major site's attempts to remove content. The online video-hosting site YouTube has on several occasions banned videos deemed "insensitive" or in violation of the copyright restrictions of major media firms. Even though the videos and the accounts of their posters were removed, five other versions of the same video might spring up within hours on YouTube and other online video websites. The more frequently the videos were removed, the greater was the public backlash—leading to a more massive flood of videos. In virtually every case I have observed, the videos ultimately remained on YouTube and generated more exposure than they would have otherwise. If a single site cannot effectively shut down the transmission of ideas on its own property, how difficult must it be for a large, unwieldy government apparatus to combat dissent spread throughout the world!
Some governments seeking to restrict the free flow of ideas have attempted to extensively limit their subjects' access to the Internet. But blocking online content is like using a sieve to stop the flow of water. China's government requires search engines such as Google to block content critical of the Communist Party. However, such censorship is ineffectual and fails to substantively restrict access to even the most "threatening" ideas. James Glassman notes with amusement that the Chinese government "blocks access to certain websites, including that of the Washington Post but not of my own far more subversive free-market technology site,
Even restricting access to virtually every major Western media source would not address the millions of online articles, political blogs, small magazines, videos, and audio recordings that Chinese and other government officials do not know and cannot know about.
Search engines that filter out combinations of provocative keywords still cannot detect metaphors, allegories, subtle allusions, satires, and even unusual turns of phrase. Moreover, they cannot stop individuals from using the local knowledge of their friends and associates in order to find websites without the aid of major search engines.
Throughout his work, Hayek emphasizes the importance of particular knowledge of time and place in shaping individual decisions—as well as a centralized bureaucracy's inability to access such knowledge. Much of individuals' awareness of content on the Internet arises from their possession of such local knowledge. A Hayekian analysis would suggest that governments are powerless to even know the nature of this knowledge, much less to interfere with its transmission.
The Early Internet and the Downfall of the Soviet Union
To merely say that the Internet has made the effective large-scale censorship of ideas impossible would understate the case for the Internet as a tool of unprecedented individual liberation. The Internet has the power to bring down oppressive governments—a power that was manifested even in its early days. For instance, the Internet played an indispensable role in destroying the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
The USSR was destroyed not by the conventional means of invasion or violent revolution, but by the flow of information. In the words of Shimon Peres,
Communism fell without the participation of the Russian army, for or against; it fell without having a new political party against the Communists—if at all, it was done by the Communists; it fell without the intervention of the United States, Europe, China or anybody else…. Authoritarian governments became weak the minute they could no longer blind their people or control information.
Author Scott Shane agrees and writes that the "death of the Soviet illusion… [was] not by tanks and bombs but by facts and opinions, by the release of information bottled up for decades." The initial visible stimulus for the flood of information that led Soviet citizens to question their regime was Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of Glasnost, initiated in 1985 and gradually relaxing restrictions on access to information and travel through the late 1980s. However, Glasnost did not originate from Gorbachev's good will alone—but rather from his recognition of a technological necessity. In Gorbachev's own words from 1988, "International communication is easier now than ever before. Nowadays, it is virtually impossible for any society to be 'closed.'"
Gorbachev faced the dilemma of totalitarian societies, as described by George Schultz three years earlier:
[T]hey try to stifle these [information and communication] technologies and thereby fall further behind in the new industrial revolution, or else they permit these technologies and see their totalitarian control inevitably eroded. In fact, they do not have a choice, because they will never be able entirely to block the tide of technological advance.
The tremendous ability of communication technologies to drive economic growth and prosperity implies that governments that do not embrace such technologies condemn themselves to falling greatly behind their freer counterparts. Failure to at least partially permit the spread of recent technological developments could be fatal to a regime that needs some semblance of economic growth to be seen as a possible alternative to Western political systems.
As Kedzie notes, "a dictator who eschews interactive communications perhaps does so only at the peril of healthy economic growth." If too glaring a technological and economic disparity occurs, this alone could generate enough internal discontent to result in a coup or a rebellion. On the other hand, adopting the new technologies enables information critical of the regime to spread and become available in the marketplace of ideas.
Four years after Glasnost was adopted, the inflow of information revolutionized the climate of Soviet public opinion. Government-propagated versions of history and economics became recognized as false and dishonest. James Dorn writes that
Glasnost fueled the people's anger as they discovered that most of the things they had been taught about Soviet paradise and capitalist hell were fabricated… With the increased information available in newspapers and on television, the new economic dissidents became a powerful force for dismantling the Soviet empire.
The Internet came to have a vital role in spreading the truth. In 1989, Relcom, a privately owned network, emerged in the USSR. According to Kedzie,
Relcom (short for "reliable communication") was implemented specifically to support commercial activity otherwise stultified by the intentionally constrained Soviet telecommunications infrastructure. Supported by its own user fees, this network has blossomed to hundreds of thousands of users.
Not only did Relcom liberate many Soviet citizens by enabling them to engage in economic transactions that enhanced their
standards of living—it also gave them a forum for self-expression outside the purview of the government. Relcom enabled its users to spread and develop ideas, immune from oversight and the need for prior approval. Key to this ability was the very structure of the Internet.
Clay Shirky writes that the Internet is based on the end-to-end principle: "What made it worth adopting in a world already well provisioned with other networks, was that the sender and receiver didn't have to ask for either help or permission before inventing a new kind of message." While even under Glasnost, the Soviet government exercised some oversight and censorship over the printed media, radio, telephones, and television—such control was impossible on the Internet by virtue of the Internet's very design. The most governments can do is filter major search engines—but engines like Yahoo! and Google did not even exist in 1989. Hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens became informed nonetheless through Relcom, which, in Kedzie's judgment, "proved to be a powerful social weapon against centralized power."
Relcom was not the sole online source influencing the downfall of the Soviet Union. More diffuse and personal means
of communication—such as email—were also crucial. In Kedzie's words, "The international flow of e-mail messages strengthened the conventional media, which could no longer be deprived of outside sources for information."
While most of the public still got its facts from the newspapers, radio, and television, the journalists in each of those media often looked to electronic communications to get accurate information from the West and from within the USSR. Facts conveyed through the Internet found their way into the pages of newspapers and onto television screens. A wide array of technologies worked symbiotically to collapse confidence in the Communist Party:
Fax machines and photocopiers, video recorders and personal computers outside the government were no longer exotica but a sprawling, living nervous system that linked the Russian political opposition, the republican independence movements, and the burgeoning private sector.
Nor was the Soviet experience unique. At the same time, the Velvet Revolution transformed Czechoslovakia.
[S]tudents were trying to coordinate the uprising across the nation and … were running a telecom angle…. The Czech secret police were far too stupid and primitive to keep up with digital telecommunications, so the student-radical modem network was relatively secure from bugging and taps….
The Communist government of Czechoslovakia was overthrown on December 29, 1989, largely due to the efforts of technologically adept students with Internet access. Two years later, the Soviet Union, too, ceased to exist.
Social, Economic, and Political Liberation
The influence of the Internet has grown by orders of magnitude since the fall of the Soviet Union. In 1997, about 96 million people used the Internet; by 2002, the number had grown to about 650 million. On December 30, 2007, the Internet had an estimated 1.319 billion users. Along with this increase in usage came increases in convenience and functionality. For every individual, the cost of sending and receiving information is a tiny fraction of what it was during the Internet's early days. According to Glassman, "Over 30 years, [from 1972 to 2002], the cost of sending 1 trillion bits of information has dropped from $150,000 to 17 cents."
Email accounts were expensive and offered only several megabytes of storage in the 1990s. In 2008, email accounts are free to users, and popular services like Gmail and Yahoo! Mail offer practically unlimited storage that increases faster than mailboxes fill up with content.
Any individual can publish his ideas online without even needing to pay for a website. Free websites offered by services like Yahoo! GeoCities—along with hundreds of forums, blog hosting
sites, and free publication venues—give any willing person a chance to share his thoughts, engage in discussion and debate, and build up his audience and reputation.
Websites such as YouTube enable users to easily create and share video content, while the emergence of high-speed Internet connections has rendered the uploading and downloading of thousands of audio files possible for every connected individual.