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Pax Technica: How the Internet of Things May Set Us Free or Lock Us Up

Pax Technica: How the Internet of Things May Set Us Free or Lock Us Up

by Philip N. Howard

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A foremost digital expert looks at the most powerful political tool ever created—the internet of things. Will it be like the internet of surveillance and censorship we have now, or will it be something better?

Should we fear or welcome the internet’s evolution? The “internet of things” is the rapidly growing network of everyday


A foremost digital expert looks at the most powerful political tool ever created—the internet of things. Will it be like the internet of surveillance and censorship we have now, or will it be something better?

Should we fear or welcome the internet’s evolution? The “internet of things” is the rapidly growing network of everyday objects—eyeglasses, cars, thermostats—made smart with sensors and internet addresses. Soon we will live in a pervasive yet invisible network of everyday objects that communicate with one another. In this original and provocative book, Philip N. Howard envisions a new world order emerging from this great transformation in the technologies around us.
Howard calls this new era a Pax Technica. He looks to a future of global stability built upon device networks with immense potential for empowering citizens, making government transparent, and broadening information access. Howard cautions, however, that privacy threats are enormous, as is the potential for social control and political manipulation. Drawing on evidence from around the world, he illustrates how the internet of things can be used to repress and control people. Yet he also demonstrates that if we actively engage with the governments and businesses building the internet of things, we have a chance to build a new kind of internet—and a more open society.

Editorial Reviews

Seth Lewis
“Ambitious and provocative, Pax Technica addresses the implications of digital media, big data, and related phenomena for democracy and public life. Pundits, policymakers, and those curious about the changing landscape of media, politics, and global affairs should take note.”—Seth Lewis, University of Minnesota
Darrell West
“Connected devices raise a variety of social, economic, and political concerns. In this timely book, Howard analyzes how sensors, geolocation devices, and wearable technologies will broaden and threaten people’s lives. It is a superb analysis of what he calls ‘pax technica’.”—Darrell West, Brookings Institution
Robert W. McChesney
Pax Technica is a groundbreaking assessment of the next great stage of the digital revolution, the one that makes all previous stages look like child's play. The ‘internet of things’ is upon us, and Howard provides an eye-opening account of its immense promise and perils.”—Robert W. McChesney, author of Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism is Turning the Internet Against Democracy
Lee Rainie
“We can’t say we haven’t been warned—or encouraged. Phil Howard makes a big argument about the fundamental shift in power that will occur once the Internet of Things takes hold and connected devices become central to our lives. He also provides a wise blueprint for making these changes work for the common good. Take heed.”—Lee Rainie, Director of Internet, Science, and Technology research at the Pew Research Center
Clay Shirkey
“Forget networking your toaster to your refrigerator—in Pax Technica, Howard brilliantly outlines the coming consequences of the Internet of Things, including altered norms of international governance. This is the most important work yet written on the subject, and the first to extend the logic of networked infrastructure to the global political stage.”—Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody
Ron Deibert
"Pax Technica is an essential guidebook for the often unsettling implications of Big Data and the Internet of Things. Howard crafts a persuasive plea for active civic engagement to help chart us towards a more equitable digital future."—Ron Deibert, author of Black Code: Surveillance, Privacy, and the Dark Side of the Internet
Viktor Mayer-Schonberger
“To understand the true significance of the Internet of Things, I only need to turn to Philip Howard’s new masterpiece: Bold, comprehensive, full of intriguing insights and eminently readable!”—Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, co-author of Big Data
Kenneth Cuker
Pax Technica is a brilliant work of responsible optimism about how big data, AI and the Internet of Things may improve the world. Philip Howard acknowledges the potential downsides of our data-drenched society, but makes a compelling case for why we may live better, and govern ourselves sensibly, in the era of Pax Technica. The book makes a substantial contribution to the debate over how we coexist with technology—and is as a thoughtful antidote to the digital doomsayers.”—Kenneth Cukier, co-author of Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think
Jonathan Zittrain
“In Pax Technica, Phillip Howard envisions a world in which the ubiquity of Internet connectivity and the proliferation of Internet-aware devices fundamentally change the ways governments and other power structures interact with people. Whether this new order comes to full fruition, Howard's roadmap of the potential opportunities and consequences is extremely useful as we move into unchartered technical and political waters.”—Jonathan Zittrain, George Bemis Professor of Law and Professor of Computer Science, Harvard University
Anya Schiffrin
“Building on his previous research about digital technology and democratization, Philip Howard takes a sweeping and ambitious look at how government, political structures and international relations will be transformed by technological change. Optimistic that a Pax Technica will bring global stability, Howard calls for more transparency, standards for data sharing and reminds us of the need for an internet that is truly global. Thought provoking, opinionated, and upbeat, Howard's book is an interesting addition to the debate about the effects that new technology should and could have on our society.”—Anya Schiffrin, author of Global Muckraking
Rebecca MacKinnon
“Understanding geopolitics in the Internet age is no longer possible without an understanding of how power is wielded across global networks of digital devices. Phil Howard maps out the opportunities and challenges of this brave new world.”—Rebecca MacKinnon, author of Consent of the Networked
Anne-Marie Slaughter
Pax Technica is a bold and prophetic book. Even if you disagree with Philip Howard's conclusions, you will want to engage with his arguments. He sees our world in a genuinely new way.”—Anne-Marie Slaughter, Professor Emerita of Politics and International Affairs, Princeton University, Director of Policy Planning, U.S. State Department, 2009-2011
Yochai Benkler
“Weaving rich stories into an analytic framework, Howard's crisply written book outlines a technologically-optimistic vision of the emerging public-private global order he dubs Pax Technica. Whether one accepts or rejects his arguments, the book is an important contribution to our struggle to understand the world that is coming upon us.”—Yochai Benkler, author of The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom
Larry Diamond
“A riveting and highly readable portrait of how the explosive growth of the ‘internet of things’ will pervasively reshape political and social life—and why democratic publics must be prepared. Essential for anyone who wants to understand the world that is emerging in the coming hyper version of the digital age.”—Larry Diamond, author of The Spirit of Democracy

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Yale University Press
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5.80(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.30(d)

Read an Excerpt

Pax Technica

How the Internet of Things May Set Us Free or Lock Us Up

By Philip N. Howard


Copyright © 2015 Philip N. Howard
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-21366-9



Behind every empire is a new technology. Empires build information infrastructures that connect distant towns with major financial centers. Network infrastructure allows innovations from any one part of the realm to quickly benefit everyone else. Entrepreneurs have an easier time figuring out supply and demand. Military leaders have an easier time defending the empire, and political leaders have more information about public needs.

The Romans had such an empire, because they built the roads and aqueducts that provided their empire structure and stability. The British also had such an empire, because they had a network of fortifications and a superior navy to manage their global trade routes.

In this chapter I map out the expanding infrastructure of networked devices. I explore this domain with some hard data—a kind of census—on the size of the empire of connected things. Then I discuss some of the ways these networks of connected devices get used in political ways. When governments fail to protect us, and are unable to even warn the public of danger, we use digital media to build new systems of early warning. When governments are working well, they can overreach and use digital media to censor and surveil their citizens. Increasingly, we find that device networks are pressed into service for political and military objectives.

Carna Surveils the Realm

New information technologies have transformed world politics, and not always in good ways. Even trying to understand how technology connects us reveals the strengths and weaknesses of the internet we have built for ourselves. To understand what the internet is becoming, let's start with a basic question—how big is it?

Recently, a creative programmer decided that it might be an interesting exercise to count all the devices that were connected to the internet. We still don't know who did this internet census, but for now let's just call her Amanda. Completing an internet census was an intellectual and engineering challenge. Most important, she wanted to do it without causing trouble—she wanted to ping devices without interfering with them or slowing down the internet. So she built a "bot" and created a "botnet."

The word "botnet" comes from combining "robot" with "network." A botnet is a collection of programs that communicate across multiple devices to perform some task. The tasks can be simple and annoying, like generating spam. The tasks can be aggressive and malicious, like choking off internet exchange points, promoting political messages, or launching denial-of-service attacks. Some of these programs simply amuse their creators; others support criminal enterprises.

In playing around, Amanda discovered a surprising number of unprotected devices connected to the global internet. She realized that the only way of doing a complete census was to build a botnet that would enlist all the unprotected devices in the service of the census project. So she wrote a chunk of code that would both count devices and replicate itself so that its copies could help count devices. When she activated the bot, the botnet spread out and found 1.3 billion addresses in use by devices around the world.

Amanda called her script the Carna Bot after the Roman goddess of health and vitality. For her, the exercise was about taking basic measurements of the health of the internet. Her bot worked brilliantly, reporting on many different kinds of devices, from webcams and consumer routers to printers and door-security systems. Amanda decided to remain anonymous but published her findings as a public service. Even though she had noble goals, she exposed two dark secrets about how the internet works.

First, she revealed that knowing the default passwords for pieces of key equipment could give someone access to hundreds of thousands of consumer devices and tens of thousands of industrial devices around the world, from gaming platforms to industrial-control systems. So as the world's security experts debate the impact of the latest sophisticated hacking attempts from China or the encryption possibilities of quantum computers, just knowing factory passwords means someone can access any device once it leaves the factory and is connected to the internet.

Second and more concerning, the bot discovered other bots. Carna wasn't the only unauthorized bot checking for open ports on devices around the globe. Amanda's bot was written as a public service for an exploratory project, and it built a botnet to do the census. She found several competing botnets, and an enormous, sleeping, network of bots called Aidra, which had compromised as many as thirty thousand devices. Aidra had the power to hijack not just computers but gas meters, refrigerators, microwaves, car-management systems, and some mobile phones. The bots could attack any network infrastructure for a client with a denial-of-service attack. Amanda had her Carna Bot perform the public service of temporarily disabling any Aidra bots it found.

The next time someone reboots those infected devices, the bots will be ready to start commandeering them. The botnet that Amanda exposed could be very destructive if it is ever used, and some might even see her as a threat because she was fooling around with the world's device networks. Still, in exposing these dark secrets, Amanda revealed a lot about what our internet is becoming.

What's in a Pax?

The Pax Britannica was a period of history, between Napoleon's defeat and World War I, during which the British Empire managed global affairs. London was the center of power, the British navy controlled the most important sea-trading routes, and relatively efficient bureaucracies put the world's resources and people into the Empire's service. Several aspects of the Pax Britannica may actually describe our future as much as that moment of our past.

The British were strong because their network infrastructure gave them unparalleled levels of political, economic, and cultural control. The Pax Britannica was hardly a period of universal peace—it was a period of stability more than peace. There were nasty, violent brushfire wars throughout the British Empire as poor communities resisted the oppression of colonial masters. Rival kings, separatist movements, nationalist causes, and radical socialists (and anarchists, for that matter) constantly challenged the authority of the British crown. When the Pax Britannica finally waned in the middle of the twentieth century, these conflicts between allies and challengers had lasted more than a century and cost millions of lives. The sun never set on the Pax Britannica, but it cost a lot to maintain that network of colonies.

For a long century British control of global exchange yielded great profits and political stability. Alliances among Europe's royal families managed global empires and worked out diplomatic routines, enabled faster communications between power centers, and created a tacit understanding of who controlled what.

The stability of the Pax Britannica made a few people much richer than everyone else. Economic productivity improved overall, and advances in medicine and public institutions resulted in longer life spans and more democratic engagement in the Empire's colonies than in previous centuries. Certainly development was uneven, resulting in glaring inequalities on the basis of gender, race, and faith. Economic wealth was concentrated in northern urban centers. The colonies funneled riches back only to these centers. In the end, the Pax Britannica produced a set of global institutions that still serve northern wealthy countries better than they serve the global south.

A pax evolved because government and industry interests were closely aligned. The people at the center of all this were a curious mix of technocrats, princes, and business elites. The organized faiths of the Catholic and Anglican churches also provided some social structure. These helped to form community bonds that connected core and periphery, and gave those from the core who traveled to the periphery an existential sense of mission. But the social structure provided by the church was not unique to this period of history. What was unique was the rise of a new organizational form, the "firm." Moreover, these new firms were tightly coupled with the state, such that the East India Company, for example, was able to marshal the resources of the British navy for the company's global operations, and British fortifications provided homes for the Hudson's Bay Company.

A pax indicates a moment of agreement between government and industry about a shared project and way of seeing the world. The key here is that the shared project involved infrastructure. It wasn't simply an agreement between governments and businesses to help each other. The collective project involved each putting information infrastructure to work for the other's needs, building it and guarding the project in mutually supportive ways, investing in innovative new technologies, and applying existing technologies, all in such a way that would shore up the power of each while allowing others to benefit.

A few people in the center of the pax made decisions about the development of opportunities at the periphery. Most communities in the rest of the world had limited control over their own development. The British government made key decisions. It defined the borders. It decided which countries would get which technologies and resources. The British military broke down resistance to international trade. This created what historians call "path-dependent development." For most of the world, the needs of the center limited economic growth at the periphery. Indeed, many of the communities that were simply producing staples—such as minerals and food—regressed in quality of life and fell apart socially.

These defining points hold for other periods that historians have described with similar labels, such as the Pax Romana or Pax Americana. While these periods of political stability were marked by border skirmishes and outbreaks of violence between local power brokers, there were few large-scale wars. Governments and firms worked together to develop new communication technologies. There were widespread benefits to the new information infrastructures, and the elites who participated in this pact benefited most. The social forces behind rival empires and breakaway republics—each seeking to build or restore its own competing network of power—were a constant threat.

And it is safe to say that the Pax Americana is over. Historians have used this label to refer to the dominance of the United States in international affairs since the end of World War II. In important ways this period of stability (more than peace) occurred because the United States managed to dominate global industry, finance, and culture. Some would say that the collapse of the Berlin Wall marked the peak of the Pax Americana, and that the internet is just an extension of America's ability to wire up economic, political, and cultural life in other countries for its own benefit.

Device networks now provide more of that structure than cultural exports. Today, governments and the technology industry have been closely collaborating on foreign policy. Indeed, in important ways, technology policy has become foreign policy. In recent years, the U.S. State Department and Silicon Valley have found more and more creative ways to work together. They fund and develop research projects together. They exchange personnel. And executives from the State Department and Microsoft, Google, Apple, and other big technology players often share the stage at public events. Increasingly, they subscribe to the theory that technology diffusion and democratic values reinforce each other and spread together. An open, global internet is good for business and good for democracy. But as I'll argue, the United States has lost control of this digital project in important ways. The United States is no longer the primary source of innovation in digital networks and the most important builder of information infrastructure. The internet no longer just "speaks English," and the Pax Americana is probably over.

The Demographics of Diffusion

More than ever, technology and technical expertise mean political power. Political clout now comes from ownership or regulation of mobile-phone networks, and control over the broadcast spectrum. The technology trends are well known but still impressive. By 2015 more than a billion people are on Facebook, and every day a half million more join. YouTube has 500 million unique visitors every month who view 95 billion videos. Every minute, users upload more than 3,000 images to Flickr, to say nothing of the other kinds of multimedia content that visitors upload to other variations of blogs, feeds, and websites. Twitter handles 500 million tweets per day, and 12 new accounts appear every second. When new social-media technologies are developed, they can attract millions of users in a blink of an eye. It took Google+ less than three weeks to attract 10 million users.

Yet it is not a particular tool or application that has created these unique circumstances of history. Altogether, the suite of digital technologies allows such levels of interactivity, creativity, and access. Moreover, usage patterns vary around the world. Facebook is only slowly making inroads into Russia and Brazil. The Chinese government has built rival platforms for almost all of the interesting digital media technologies developed in the West, so that its security services can use digital media for social control.

In 2000, only about 10 percent of the world's population was online. By 2015, more than half the world's population has internet access, two billion people have smartphones, and almost everyone on the planet has a mobile phone or easy access to mobile technology through family and friends. Three of every five new internet users now live in a politically fragile country, but people have used digital media to strengthen family and friendship ties, build political identities of their own, and make other kinds of social groups more cohesive. Digital media have changed the way people use their networks and have allowed them to be political actors when they want to be engaged. They use the technologies to connect to one another, and to share stories.

For decades, the greatest flow of digital content was between London and New York. That's changed now, too. The majority of traffic once flowed through the undersea trunk cables connecting North America to Europe. However, the network has evolved quickly as more and more devices have become connected. In the past few years, Asian cities have been demanding more bandwidth than cities in the West, and the majority of the world's internet users live in those Asian cities. February 2013 was an important month for the new world order, because it was probably the last time that the West dominated the use of global bandwidth. If you live in the West, this was the month you lost this centrality. If you live in China, this was the month your region became the dominant network center. If you live in other parts of the world, it was the day in which the center of your economic, cultural, and political universe shifted.

Before February 2013, the bandwidth used across the transatlantic cables that connect the United States with Europe averaged just under twenty terabits per second. Most of that traffic was between the United States and the United Kingdom. Relative to other parts of the world, these two countries had the most internet users, the most internet servers, and the fastest networks. Much of that data involved market-exchange data between financial centers.

A month later, the bandwidth being used by the cables connecting Asian countries averaged more than twenty terabits per second. The most important center in global networks—measured just in terms of bandwidth—shifted from the West to Asia. The bits themselves don't care how they travel: their job is simply to flow between digital switches. And the routes they take can only be estimated with probability models. There is no consciousness-raising singularity here. But at the end of March 2013, more traffic flowed between China, Korea, and Japan than flowed between the United States, the United Kingdom, and Europe.


Excerpted from Pax Technica by Philip N. Howard. Copyright © 2015 Philip N. Howard. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Philip N. Howard is a professor and author of seven books, including Democracy’s Fourth Wave? and The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy.  He is a frequent commentator on the impact of technology on political life, contributing to Slate.com, TheAtlantic.com and other media outlets.

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