Vol. 15 No.10 (October 2005), pp.942-944


LAW AND INTERNET CULTURES, by Kathy Bowrey.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.  250pp. Paperback. £17.99 / $21.99. ISBN: 0521600480.


Reviewed by Debora Halbert, Department of History and Political Science, Otterbein College. Email: DHalbert [at] otterbein.edu.


One of the hot areas for contemporary analysis is the impact of law on the Internet and the impact of the Internet on legal structures – topics taken up in LAW & INTERNET CULTURES.  The nexus between law and the Internet has given rise to concerns regarding privacy, piracy, intellectual property and global governance.  Kathy Bowrey’s analysis of the relationship between law and the Internet examines the relationship between Internet cultures and the law internationally, with a good deal of focus on the United States.


Bowrey employs a narrative paradigm to investigate the legal issues emerging from contemporary uses of technology.  She investigates the discursive structure of Internet cultures by looking at “how stories are a form of power and knowledge [and] to explore the interplay between stories and mechanisms of power” (p.16).  As part of the process of describing the narrative complexity of power, Bowrey maps global cultural complexities, “exploring the processes, the understandings of power, historical position and influence related to Internet cultures (p.44).  She has set herself a very difficult task. 


Throughout the book, Bowrey describes important debates surrounding the information age, and she introduces the reader to key players and organizations responsible for the structure and function of the Internet.  However, she looses sight of her storytelling paradigm in the details of each chapter and only on occasion tries to make a larger argument regarding the narrative power of her examples.  Although each chapter begins with a story, they serve primarily as rhetorical devices for her chapter development and are not as useful in highlighting the power of narrative in the development of Internet culture or law.


Bowery describes her book as a journey (p.45) where interesting facts may be learned along the way, but the chapters are never linked into a larger narrative.  Furthermore, each chapter begins and ends in very different places, and few chapters offer conclusions to tie together the varied observations made along the way.  The same is true for the book as a whole – there is no conclusion.  It simply ends, and one is left wondering what the larger narrative that should emerge from the text might be.  If one thinks of this book as a journey and not as an argument, it is easier to understand why Bowery offers no summary and conclusion – however, if a narrative paradigm is the goal of the book, clarification of what the ultimate narrative analysis might look like would have been quite useful. 


Bowrey sets up most chapters within a story that allows her to make a point about Internet law and culture.  For example, Chapter Two introduces the reader to Mandeville’s TRAVELS and [*943] uses this 14th century text to argue that it is difficult to make unknown places “real” (p.29).  Bowrey argues that Mandeville’s fantastic tales are similar to those exaggerating the abilities of the early Internet to construct a techno-utopian vision well beyond the practical reality.  Strangely, this chapter includes a series of tables mapping a variety of economic indicators associated with early Internet growth, but these tables (with the exception of Table 5) are not mentioned in the text or included in the story Bowery is trying to tell. 


A similar narrative strategy is used in Chapter Three, which is set within the context of a science fiction short story by Arthur C. Clarke where computer programmers help an ancient sect end the world.  This story highlights the responsibility of computer programmers toward their creations. Specifically computer programmers have devised and enforced the Internet architectures that govern the system, and, as the high priests of the Internet, they should understand their responsibility.  Bowrey believes we need to move beyond the conventional stories about the Internet’s development and culture because they tend to disguise important questions about power and governance (p.53). 


Chapter Three is especially effective in employing the narrative strategies set up in the early part of the text.  Bowrey suggests that it is important to recognize the institutional aspect of Internet development, despite the conventional focus on the lone individual as the source of innovation (p.54).  The lone individual narrative is simply not true, and to understand Internet governance one must look to institutional power (p.54).  Bowrey provides a very interesting comparison between ICANN and IETF that illustrates the power of open decision-making and the possibility of Habermasian free speech (p.62).  She then shifts to a discussion of patents and the threat they pose to open standards.  However, she offers no conclusion to tie these issues together, and by the end of the chapter, the focus on narratives has been lost.


Chapter Four employs George Orwell’s 1984 to frame a discussion about open source and free software.  Bowery provides a good overview of the complexities in the open-source debates, the resistance by proprietary software developers to free software, and the emergence of a community of programmers dedicated to the concept of free software.  She suggests that as long as the underlying legal regime is property oriented, open source and free software will rely upon this proprietary paradigm.  If they depend upon a paradigm of private property, then the language developed by Lawrence Lessig regarding the commons should be viewed suspiciously (p.99).  Specifically, there is nothing new going on in the open source and free software movement, and Bowrey argues that “free software and free culture . . . is analogous to the freedom celebrated in the Chestnut Tree Café” of Orwell’s dystopian future (p.100).   


Chapter Five takes up the Microsoft anti-trust case and the general hatred of Microsoft as a company.  Bowrey suggests that Microsoft is an “archetype of the information economy” which helps explain the dislike for the company despite the fact there are information age businesses bigger and at least as aggressive as Microsoft that do [*944] not generate the same sort of hatred (p.104).  In this chapter, Bowery discusses the Microsoft litigation and then considers issues related to globalization, including the outsourcing of jobs (in which Microsoft is complicit).  Again, the chapter ends without a conclusion that might connect the argument together.


Chapter Six describes the narratives surrounding music piracy and suggests that the political implications of the piracy narrative help structure court decisions in the U.S. regarding file sharing.  Unlike other arguments that emphasize the importance of intellectual property debates in the peer-to-peer battles, Bowery suggests that intellectual property controversies serve to distract our attention from the much more important issue of using trademarks to create global branding (p.164).  Her position is refreshing and useful for copyright scholars with an interest in the Grokster and Napster battles. 


The final chapter considers the issues of resistance and possibility for change.  Bowrey describes the emergence of a global civil society and debates over the meaning of citizenship.  She singles out the United States as a force standing against progressive change and one that supports draconian intellectual property and free trade laws around the globe.  Although she addresses issues related to resistance and civil society, the chapter ends abruptly with brief comments about the importance of law to social change.  The abrupt end, without a larger conclusion, leaves the entire text missing a key aspect of its own narrative – how to pull the story back together.  References and connections to the larger project would provide a more compelling conclusion than that offered in the final chapter.


The book has clear strengths and weaknesses.   In terms of weaknesses, Bowrey forgets her own narrative paradigm and often stops short of the crucial analysis her case examples desperately need.  She does a nice job of reviewing construction of the Internet and its governing politics that are important to understanding the status quo.  Overall, the book’s merits prevail, but the entire project would have been stronger if the concept of telling stories had led to a more compelling narrative connecting the various strands into a single text. 


© Copyright 2005 by the author, Debora Halbert.