Bits of Power: Struggling for Control of Information and Communication Networks

Robin Mansell


Contests for the control of information and communication networks and, specifically, for control of digital bits of power (the capacity to control information processing) often take the form of struggles over network neutrality. This article examines how, historically, such struggles have been accompanied by changes in the configuration of ideas or social imaginaries that have legitimized the actions of companies, the state and civil society in relation to the development of networks. The aim is to assess the likelihood that institutional arrangements will be put in place that might privilege citizen interests in preserving an open internet. This, in turn, would strengthen the capacity of citizens to resist power asymmetries that threaten their fundamental rights to privacy, access to information, and freedom of expression in the digital environment. Concepts derived from historical institutionalism and the economic history of technical advances provide a framework for examining continuity and change following the introduction of digital technologies. The analysis shows why a narrow policy focus on network neutrality can obscure the way citizen interests in a digitally mediated environment are subordinated to corporate and state interests. Such obfuscation makes it difficult to assess whether the current period is path dependent and locked in to a single direction for development or whether there is the potential for alternative pathways - a ‘forking of the road’ - which could be more favourable to citizens.

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