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Book reviews

A human perspective on the history of radiation, how the Internet could develop, and the full story of one of the world’s favourite treats.


The Closing of the Net

By Monica Horten, £50.00 hb/ £15.99 pb, ISBN 9781509506880/9781509506897

Future histories of information technology may record that the ‘open’ Internet proved but a transitory phase, and that those old enough to remember taking it for granted recall a golden era when views and ideas could be freely expressed online; for though we might still be able to express ourselves on tomorrow’s Internet, ‘The Closing of the Net’ warns, it may not be for free.

Forceful commercial and political agencies in Europe and the US are driving vested-interest agendas which, by means of emerging legislation and technological advances, seek to change how the Internet is provisioned and paid for, and how web content is governed in law, Monica Horten says. A “compilation of pressures” could result in many aspects of the web being ‘closed’ to those unwilling or unable to pay the fees, or abide by conditions of use.

In her wide-ranging and widely-informed analysis, Horten scopes how this unfolding scenario is shaped by the manoeuvrings of infrastructure owners - network providers who own the physical infrastructures (such as AT&T, BT, Telefónica) - and content platform owners (such as Google, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter) - both intent on applying their ‘structural power’. Economic power is exercised by mobilising capital and controlling markets; structural power ‘involves creating outcomes that determine the opportunities and limitations for... society at large’.

For the big network and content owners, structural power entails their ability to present bargaining choices, shut opportunities on or off, or co-operate with governments. These issues often coincide with aspects of how online freedom of expression, rights of access, and copyright laws should be defined and enforced - and also how transgressors should be punished, and by whom.

The basic tenets of net neutrality are also being challenged. The telecoms industry is not keen on it being enshrined in law, Horten reports, as this would impede their business plans to ‘slice up’ broadband into tiered services where quality-of-service is linked to pricing tariffs or priority traffic premiums. Network owners are fed up with seeing content platform owners enjoy vast profits and market capitalisations on the backs of their communications infrastructures, and want a bigger piece of the action.

The Internet industry on both sides of the ownership divide increasingly finds itself cast as ‘policeman, judge and jury’, as responsibility for governance shifts from state to industry. Content platform managers find themselves in the role of law-maker, able to decide what is allowed to be published - and what is suppressed.

‘The Closing of the Net’ describes how, as it grates against questions of public interest, the corporate aims of structural power are being negotiated between monetisers and policy-makers in legislative chambers and courtrooms. They face each other around a spectrum of regulatory controls and legal frameworks deemed necessary as the Internet’s importance to international relations grows greater. In behind-the-scenes manipulations in the US, UK and EU (and doubtless elsewhere) devious commercial consortia and business groups form alliances to influence policy outcomes so that their sponsors’ interests are upheld and pass into law. The potential hazards of nation states trading legislative concessions around a quid pro quos that result in access to private data passing over public networks should not be ignored.

One of the cornerstones of the author’s overarching arguments is that although network operators are private companies, they still have obligatory public duties toward the Internet. The network operators may argue back that they operate privately funded systems, and not ‘public’ infrastructures. The millions of investors with shares in those companies will probably be inclined to agree.

James Hayes

Oxford University Press

The Economics of Chocolate

Edited by Mara P Squicciarini and Johan Swinnen, £29.99, ISBN 9780198726449

Chocolate enjoys such a unique place in the world’s food infrastructure that even a book that sets out to focus on the financial side of its market incorporates huge amounts of information about science and technology.

A basic part of many people’s diet yet also an occasional luxury, criticised for its lack of nutritional virtues in some forms but touted as having potential health benefits in others - everyone has an opinion about how much if any is good for us. The emergence of fairly traded products has focused attention too on the iniquities of how it reaches consumers.

Mara P Squicciarini and Johan Swinnen are both economists and researchers at the University of Leuven, although the fact they are - like the most prestigious chocolate products - from Belgium, is a fortunate coincidence.

Together they have gathered contributions from various experts which, while focusing on economic analysis, take in psychology, history, government, nutrition and geography. The story is inextricably linked with technology: to be able to use cocoa and chocolate as a source of tax revenue while also regulating it to protect public health, governments have had to be able to define what it is.

You might be surprised to learn that the first fight over the designation of ‘chocolate’ was within the Catholic Church. With the popular new beverage arriving in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries following the Spanish conquest of America, the question of whether it was a food or drink was a significant one in predominantly Catholic countries like Spain, France and Italy, where it determined whether it could be consumed during fasting periods or during Lent. The debate went on for more than two decades until, in the absence of a formal decision from religious authorities, common practice depending on whether milk or other ingredients were added as well as water became the de facto rule.

This is just one example of how the economics of what quickly became a lucrative industry are intertwined with science. If you find it hard to deny yourself a chocolatey treat, the basic law of supply and demand may be coming to the aid of your lack of willpower. ‘The Economics of Chocolate’ includes a stark warning of how rising consumption in emerging markets like China, India and Africa is causing a major boom in global demand and prices which, combined with climatic trends, looks like leading to a potential shortage of the world’s favourite sweet.

Dominic Lenton

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