As with the other piece posted today, this is an assessment item from university (again, that I hope makes sense), this one a review of one of the course readings so far in the semester. I chose this one because, well, mostly I was very low on time because I’m an utter idiot. But also because it was about the internet, which I do happen to know a thing or two about. The TL;DR here is discussing whether the Internet is similar to Hobbes’ State of Nature, as depicted in The Leviathan, or a ‘state within a state’ based on Rousseau’s notion that society is corrupt. My conclusion was that it absolutely is a digital state within many other physical states, and that I disagreed with the author’s (Reeven) middle ground approach and intense focus on net neutrality.
Not as confident with this one as I am with the previous piece, but ah well, here it is.
In her 2018 article, ‘The Internet: State of Nature or Artificial State?: A Modern Reflection on Hobbes and Rousseau’, Reeven explores the importance of net neutrality as a method of Internet governance in a global context. The key contention raised is determining whether the Internet requires governance at all, or if it was in fact a ‘governed state’ from the start. This is done by drawing on the work of Hobbes and Rousseau and comparing the two different approaches. Is the Internet a digital recreation of the Hobbesian view of the State of Nature (and thus in need of governance), or was it, in Rousseau’s words, an ‘artificial state’, governed from its inception?
The contemporary issue being examined through this lens was the American Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) decision to repeal a rule classifying the internet as a public utility in 2017 under the Trump administration (notably, a rule legislated in 2015 under the Obama administration). This was the basis for net neutrality, which, at its core, is the ‘idea that internet service providers… should treat all content flowing through their cables and cell towers equally’ (Finley 2020). Basically, as Reeven put it, the free flow of information online.
The concern with this, in the modern knowledge and information dependent society and economy described by Reeven, is that countries with superior network infrastructure would (inadvertently or by design) exclude those with isolated or limited access. Indeed, this could even apply to similarly neglected regions within these highly developed countries. The other critique of the repeal was the potential for stifling free speech and severely dampening the reach and innovation of new content and ideas.
States of Nature
It is with this background that the ideas of Hobbes and Rousseau are applied to determine which state the Internet is – Hobbes’ State of Nature, or Rousseau’s state within a state. Reeven details the Hobbesian approach first, drawing heavily from Hobbes’ own Leviathan and more recent literature on his philosophy.
Essentially, the State of Nature is what existed before ‘humans signed a contract, by which they agreed to give up their natural rights in order to live with each other in peace’ (Skinner 2008, cited in Reeven 2017: 18), the most ubiquitous of which was the natural right to equal pursuit of one’s own personal desires and self-preservation. For Hobbes, this implied that man was inherently a selfish creature without any sense of morality that, if left unchecked, would assuredly lead to destruction by overpowering others – or being overpowered. However, as rational beings, he also recognises that humans would ‘come to understand the necessity of the creation of something that would ensure their peace’ (Reeven 2018:19). This creation, the Leviathan, is an imposing artificial ‘man’, depicted as a being made up of the citizens who ‘signed’ this contract.
Rousseau’s stance was entirely opposite. Whilst he held, in different terms, that self-preservation and desires were an integral part of man’s natural state, he also considered compassion for others’ suffering as a necessary component. Far from the warring savages Hobbes imagined, Rousseau’s criticism was that he ‘was not describing man’s natural state but man’s artificial state’, one ‘already rooted in civilisation’ (Reeven 2018: 21). Oddly, this was based on the idea that natural man held no property, nor had interaction with anyone else. They led solitary lives, leaving any suffering or governance solely the product of ‘societal corruption’.
Internet in What State
Reeven starts by arguing that the Internet is indeed comparable to Hobbes’ State of Nature, stating that because it is decentralised it is therefore ‘lawless’ and a final bastion of ‘anarchic privacy and freedom’. Individuals can inhabit any identity they wish in online spaces, rising above all physical limitations of the real world, and anonymity reigns supreme – something Reeven suggests explains the propensity for digital crime and anti-social behaviours. Anonymity also allowed for equality and freedom to information, along with the ability to openly communicate and receive this information, something deemed ‘desirable’. However, as a result of net neutrality, service providers cannot charge users for this access, relieving the second precondition for the State of Nature, scarcity.
The article then pivots to Rousseau’s ‘state within a state’, providing a compelling counterargument that breaks down the State of Nature interpretation. Far from being a ‘war of all against all’, the dismantling of net neutrality is not the only danger on the Internet. While the Internet is a digital world, it still resides within the physical one merely as an extension to a controlled civilisation. Although a theoretical paradise, the Internet is constrained by the manifestations of power that exist outside of it, by those who seek control. Examples are given, such as service providers and governments, who have the capacity to limit what citizens are able to access. To this list, web browsers, platforms (particularly social media), and corporate power could all be added as authorities (both old and new) exercising control over the Internet.
Interestingly, Reeven seems to dismiss the State of Nature argument given all of this, but then falls back on her conclusion about net neutrality being ‘the only thing standing in between us and a constant war of all against all’ (Reeven 2018: 20), a point returned to below.
Reeven concludes ‘that the Internet carries elements of both philosophies’ (Reeven 2018: 22). Not only is the Internet at risk of falling into Hobbes’ State of Nature, but it is also perhaps worse due to the potentially false sense of security and anonymity one has online, whether they realise it or not. Free and lawless as it is, the Internet is simultaneously controlled as well, as an artificial state within Rousseau’s conception of an artificial state. It sits somewhere in the middle, separate from ‘physical reality’, but still bound to it, albeit with power dynamics shifting from governments to various forms of online governance. In her final remarks, it is stated that access to knowledge in an information-based society is vital, and that a lack of governance structures like net neutrality to repel exclusionary policies would be detrimental for the future growth of ‘slower countries’.
While this conclusion is, I believe, correct, I do contend that some arguments used to get there are rocky, and that the focus on net neutrality specifically ignores many other important issues, some of which are even mentioned in the article. Firstly, as mentioned above, Reeven argues that the Internet resides within a Hobbesian State of Nature, but that net neutrality removes scarcity and therefore saves us from it. She then argues against that, suggesting the Internet as an extension of civilisation and therefore cannot be the State of Nature; indeed, it is more likely a ‘state within a state’ with all the outside control that entails. But then in the very next line, there is a step back to the argument that net neutrality is all that prevents a slip into said State.
Second, the number of dangers facing the Internet goes well beyond repealing net neutrality. While its removal would allow service providers to throttle access to content and force people to pay for better service, there are a number of other control mechanisms that exist across the world. Governments can, through legislation, pressure or ownership, censor content and carry out surveillance. Browsers and platforms like Google or Facebook can filter or arrange content using algorithms or the click of a button. Historically, privacy has almost always been an afterthought in programming, rather than being an in-built consideration (Molitorisz 2020). Large portions of the world, mostly underdeveloped or de-developed countries, don’t even have the infrastructure to support the kinds of networking major urban and commercial cities have.
These barriers exist whether net neutrality is upheld or not, so it can’t feasibly be the sole protection from Hobbes’ State of Nature. The much more compelling and realistic argument is that it is a digital state governed by countless actors and intermediaries, affected by and within multiple nation states globally. This aligns much more with Rousseau’s philosophy, in which the Internet is merely extension of an already corrupt society. How noticeable or permeating this corruption is merely depends on where you are in the world and your perception of the relationship between the two.
Given the “nature” of the Internet, one could say there is no ‘natural state’ because it isn’t natural. Regardless, Reeven’s closing thoughts are prescient and pressing. There is much that must be done to increase the equality of, and access to, the Internet and information on it, lest our artificial societal divisions continue to increase. Whether this will (or even can) be done through legislation, as Molitorisz envisions in Net Privacy (2020), or through the empowerment of a digital commons remains to be seen.
Finley, Klint 2020 ‘The WIRED Guide to Net Neutrality’, Wired 4 May. Accessed 29 August 2021. Available at https://www.wired.com/story/guide-net-neutrality/.
Molitorisz, Sacha 2020 Net Privacy: How We Can Be Free in an Age of Surveillance Sydney: NewSouth Publishing.
van Reeven, Eva 2018 ‘The Internet: State of Nature or Artificial State? A Modern Reflection on Hobbes and Rousseau’, Erasmus Student Journal of Philosophy 14(1): 17-23.