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Digital Feudalism: Enclosures and Erasures from Digital Rights Management to the Digital Divide

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As we enter the second decade of the 21st Century, we find ourselves at a rare historical moment—a time of great opportunity fraught with substantial pitfalls. Numerous potential trajectories of the Internet may unfold before us. While decentralized and participatory platforms have birthed a revived movement for democratized media production, these phenomena depend on the common resource of the Internet; common not in ownership of the integrated networks, but in non-discriminatory access and use of the network. However, as markets evolve, there is a growing uncertainty that policy decisions surrounding the Internet will benefit the general public. Even as social networking and media production have empowered users, less visible structural changes threaten to foreclose many of the Internet’s democratic possibilities. Despite the popularity and political power of innovative services like YouTube, Face- book, and Twitter, structural changes threaten to foreclose many of the Inter- net’s democratic possibilities. Furthermore, recent developments in digital rights management (“DRM”), net neutrality, and user privacy reveal unprecedented attacks on basic Internet freedoms.

The Internet ecosystem includes a diverse array of stakeholders who build and depend upon each other’s participation. Data transmission depends on access to the physical network, and application functionality depends on the transport of data. As a result, numerous entities—such as network operators and protocol developers—have the power to define the end-user experience. Unfortunately, this ability to intervene can have profound implications for the flow of information, the functionality of applications or hardware, and the specific content or messages allowed over a network. While some scholars continue to herald the brave new world of digital networks, others suggest more cautionary tales of lost opportunities, market failure, and corporate mismanagement. With this tension in mind, this paper examines a number of recent and ongoing Internet policy battles that will determine the future of the Inter- net’s fundamental structures. If history serves as a reliable predictor, these cru- cial debates will help shape the contours of the Internet for decades, if not generations, to come.

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