The Wealth of Networks:
How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom
by Yochai Benkler, Yale University Press

© Copyright 2006, Yochai Benkler.

Chapter 7
Political Freedom Part 2: Emergence of the Networked Public Sphere

This online version has been created under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial ShareAlike license - see - and has been reformatted and designated as recommended reading - with an accompanying Moodle course - for the NGO Committee on Education of CONGO - the Conference Of Non-Governmental Organizations in Consultative Relationship with the United Nations - in conjunction with the Committee's commitment to the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development, the International Decade for a Culture of Peace and Non-violence for the Children of the World and related international Decades, agreements, conventions and treaties.


"Human nature is not a machine to be built after a model, and set to do exactly the work prescribed for it, but a tree, which requires to grow and develop itself on all sides, according to the tendency of the inward forces which make it a living thing."

"Such are the differences among human beings in their sources of pleasure, their susceptibilities of pain, and the operation on them of different physical and moral agencies, that unless there is a corresponding diversity in their modes of life, they neither obtain their fair share of happiness, nor grow up to the mental, moral, and aesthetic stature of which their nature is capable."

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (1859)

Chapter 7 Political Freedom Part 2: Emergence of the Networked Public Sphere

The fundamental elements of the difference between the networked information economy and the mass media are network architecture and the cost of becoming a speaker.

The change is as much qualitative as it is quantitative.

The basic case for the democratizing effect of the Internet, as seen from the perspective of the mid-1990s, was articulated in an opinion of the U.S. Supreme Court in Reno v. ACLU:

The Web is thus comparable, from the readers' viewpoint, to both a vast library including millions of readily available and indexed publications and a sprawling mall offering goods and services.

Through the use of chat rooms, any person with a phone line can become a town crier with a voice that resonates farther than it could from any soapbox.

The observations of what is different and unique about this new medium relative to those that dominated the twentieth century are already present in the quotes from the Court.

Since the end of the 1990s there has been significant criticism of this early conception of the democratizing effects of the Internet.

I begin the chapter by offering a menu of the core technologies and usage patterns that can be said, as of the middle of the first decade of the twenty-first century, to represent the core Internet-based technologies of democratic discourse.

Basic Tools of Networked Communication

Analyzing the effect of the networked information environment on public discourse by cataloging the currently popular tools for communication is, to some extent, self-defeating.

E-mail is the most popular application on the Net.

The World Wide Web is the other major platform for tools that individuals use to communicate in the networked public sphere.

One Web-based tool and an emerging cultural practice around it that extends the basic characteristics of Web sites as media for the political public sphere are Web logs, or blogs.

The second critical innovation of the writable Web in general and of blogs in particular was the fact that in addition to the owner, readers/users could write to the blog.

The writable Web also encompasses another set of practices that are distinct, but that are often pooled in the literature together with blogs.

Common to all these Web-based tools - both static and dynamic, individual and cooperative - are linking, quotation, and presentation.

Another dimension that is less well developed in the United States than it is in Europe and East Asia is mobility, or the spatial and temporal ubiquity of basic tools for observing and commenting on the world we inhabit.

Networked Information Economy Meets the Public Sphere

The networked public sphere is not made of tools, but of social production practices that these tools enable.

Our first story concerns Sinclair Broadcasting and the 2004 U.S. presidential election.

Sinclair, which owns major television stations in a number of what were considered the most competitive and important states in the 2004 election - including Ohio, Florida, Wisconsin, and Iowa - informed its staff and stations that it planned to preempt the normal schedule of its sixty-two stations to air a documentary called Stolen Honor: The Wounds That Never Heal, as a news program, a week and a half before the elections./2

Alongside these standard avenues of response in the traditional public sphere of commercial mass media, their regulators, and established parties, a very different kind of response was brewing on the Net, in the blogosphere.

By the morning of Wednesday, October 13, the boycott database already included eight hundred advertisers, and was providing sample letters for users to send to advertisers.

figure 7.1

Figure 7.1: Sinclair Stock, October 8-November 5, 2004

The first lesson of the Sinclair Stolen Honor story is about commercial mass media themselves.

Our second story focuses not on the new reactive capacity of the networked public sphere, but on its generative capacity.

Electronic voting machines were first used to a substantial degree in the United States in the November 2002 elections.

In late January 2003, Bev Harris, an activist focused on electronic voting machines, was doing research on Diebold, which has provided more than 75,000 voting machines in the United States and produced many of the machines used in Brazil's purely electronic voting system.

We can now reveal for the first time the location of a complete online copy of the original data set.

A number of characteristics of this call to arms would have been simply infeasible in the mass-media environment.

As the story unfolded over the next few months, this basic model of peer production of investigation, reportage, analysis, and communication indeed worked.

figure 7.2

Figure 7.2: Analysis of the Diebold Source Code Materials

Meanwhile, trouble was brewing elsewhere for Diebold.

Central from the perspective of understanding the dynamics of the networked public sphere is not, however, the court case - it was resolved almost a year later, after most of the important events had already unfolded - but the efficacy of the students' continued persistent publication in the teeth of the cease-and-desist letters and the willingness of the universities to comply.

California had a Voting Systems Panel within the office of the secretary of state that reviewed and certified voting machines.

figure 7.3a

Figure 7.3a: Diebold Internal E-mails Discovery and Distribution

figure 7.3b

Figure 7.3b: Internal E-mails Translated to Political and Judicial Action

The structure of public inquiry, debate, and collective action exemplified by this story is fundamentally different from the structure of public inquiry and debate in the mass-media-dominated public sphere of the twentieth century.

Critiques of the Claims that the Internet has Democratizing Effects

It is common today to think of the 1990s, out of which came the Supreme Court's opinion in Reno v. ACLU, as a time of naďve optimism about the Internet, expressing in political optimism the same enthusiasm that drove the stock market bubble, with the same degree of justifiability.

  1. Information overload.

      A basic problem created when everyone can speak is that there will be too many statements, or too much information.

      Too many observations and too many points of view make the problem of sifting through them extremely difficult, leading to an unmanageable din.

      This overall concern, a variant of the Babel objection, underlies three more specific arguments: that money will end up dominating anyway, that there will be fragmentation of discourse, and that fragmentation of discourse will lead to its polarization.

        Money will end up dominating anyway.

          A point originally raised by Eli Noam is that in this explosively large universe, getting attention will be as difficult as getting your initial message out in the mass-media context, if not more so.

          The same means that dominated the capacity to speak in the mass-media environment - money - will dominate the capacity to be heard on the Internet, even if it no longer controls the capacity to speak.

        Fragmentation of attention and discourse.

          A point raised most explicitly by Cass Sunstein in is that the ubiquity of information and the absence of the mass media as condensation points will impoverish public discourse by fragmenting it.

          There will be no public sphere.

          Individuals will view the world through millions of personally customized windows that will offer no common ground for political discourse or action, except among groups of highly similar individuals who customize their windows to see similar things.


          A descriptively related but analytically distinct critique of Sunstein's was that the fragmentation would lead to polarization.

          When information and opinions are shared only within groups of like-minded participants, he argued, they tend to reinforce each other's views and beliefs without engaging with alternative views or seeing the concerns and critiques of others.

          This makes each view more extreme in its own direction and increases the distance between positions taken by opposing camps.

  2. Centralization of the Internet.

      A second-generation criticism of the democratizing effects of the Internet is that it turns out, in fact, not to be as egalitarian or distributed as the 1990s conception had suggested.

      First, there is concentration in the pipelines and basic tools of communications.

      Second, and more intractable to policy, even in an open network, a high degree of attention is concentrated on a few top sites - a tiny number of sites are read by the vast majority of readers, while many sites are never visited by anyone.

      In this context, the Internet is replicating the mass-media model, perhaps adding a few channels, but not genuinely changing anything structural.

      Note that the concern with information overload is in direct tension with the second-generation concerns.

        To the extent that the concerns about Internet concentration are correct, they suggest that the information overload is not a deep problem.

        Sadly, from the perspective of democracy, it turns out that according to the concentration concern, there are few speakers to which most people listen, just as in the mass-media environment.

        While this means that the supposed benefits of the networked public sphere are illusory, it also means that the information overload concerns about what happens when there is no central set of speakers to whom most people listen are solved in much the same way that the mass-media model deals with the factual diversity of information, opinion, and observations in large societies - by consigning them to public oblivion.

        The response to both sets of concerns will therefore require combined consideration of a series of questions: To what extent are the claims of concentration correct?

        How do they solve the information overload problem?

        To what extent does the observed concentration replicate the mass-media model?

  3. Centrality of commercial mass media to the Fourth Estate function.

      The importance of the press to the political process is nothing new.

      It earned the press the nickname "the Fourth Estate" (a reference to the three estates that made up the prerevolutionary French Estates-General, the clergy, nobility, and townsmen), which has been in use for at least a hundred and fifty years.

      In American free speech theory, the press is often described as fulfilling "the watchdog function," deriving from the notion that the public representatives must be watched over to assure they do the public's business faithfully.

      In the context of the Internet, the concern, most clearly articulated by Neil Netanel, has been that in the modern complex societies in which we live, commercial mass media are critical for preserving the watchdog function of the media.

      Big, sophisticated, well-funded government and corporate market actors have enormous resources at their disposal to act as they please and to avoid scrutiny and democratic control.

      Only similarly big, powerful, independently funded media organizations, whose basic market roles are to observe and criticize other large organizations, can match these established elite organizational actors.

      Individuals and collections of volunteers talking to each other may be nice, but they cannot seriously replace well-funded, economically and politically powerful media.

  4. Authoritarian countries can use filtering and monitoring to squelch Internet use.

      A distinct set of claims and their critiques have to do with the effects of the Internet on authoritarian countries.

      The critique is leveled at a basic belief supposedly, and perhaps actually, held by some cyber-libertarians, that with enough access to Internet tools freedom will burst out everywhere.

      The argument is that China, more than any other country, shows that it is possible to allow a population access to the Internet - it is now home to the second-largest national population of Internet users - and still control that use quite substantially.

  5. Digital divide.

      While the Internet may increase the circle of participants in the public sphere, access to its tools is skewed in favor of those who already are well-off in society - in terms of wealth, race, and skills.

      I do not respond to this critique in this chapter.

      First, in the United States, this is less stark today than it was in the late 1990s.

      Computers and Internet connections are becoming cheaper and more widely available in public libraries and schools.

      As they become more central to life, they seem to be reaching higher penetration rates, and growth rates among underrepresented groups are higher than the growth rate among the highly represented groups.

      The digital divide with regard to basic access within advanced economies is important as long as it persists, but seems to be a transitional problem.

      Moreover, it is important to recall that the democratizing effects of the Internet must be compared to democracy in the context of mass media, not in the context of an idealized utopia.

      Computer literacy and skills, while far from universal, are much more widely distributed than the skills and instruments of mass-media production.

      Second, I devote chapter 9 to the question of how and why the emergence specifically of nonmarket production provides new avenues for substantial improvements in equality of access to various desiderata that the market distributes unevenly, both within advanced economies and globally, where the maldistribution is much more acute.

      While the digital divide critique can therefore temper our enthusiasm for how radical the change represented by the networked information economy may be in terms of democracy, the networked information economy is itself an avenue for alleviating maldistribution.

The remainder of this chapter is devoted to responding to these critiques, providing a defense of the claim that the Internet can contribute to a more attractive liberal public sphere.

Is the Internet Too Chaotic, Too Concentrated, or Neither?

The first-generation critique of the claims that the Internet democratizes focused heavily on three variants of the information overload or Babel objection.

Extensive empirical and theoretical studies of actual use patterns of the Internet over the past five to eight years has given rise to a second-generation critique of the claim that the Internet democratizes.

Therefore, we now turn to the question: Is the Internet in fact too chaotic or too concentrated to yield a more attractive democratic discourse than the mass media did?

There are two very distinct types of claims about Internet centralization.

The media-concentration type argument has been central to arguments about the necessity of open access to broadband platforms, made most forcefully over the past few years by Lawrence Lessig.

The risk of concentration in broadband access services is that a small number of firms, sufficiently small to have economic power in the antitrust sense, will control the markets for the basic instrumentalities of Internet communications.

The critique of concentration in this form therefore does not undermine the claim that the networked information economy, if permitted to flourish, will improve the democratic public sphere.

On Power Law Distributions, Network Topology, and Being Heard

A much more intractable challenge to the claim that the networked information economy will democratize the public sphere emerges from observations of a set or phenomena that characterize the Internet, the Web, the blogosphere, and, indeed, most growing networks.

The sustained study of the distribution of links on the Internet and the Web is relatively new - only a few years old.

While the Internet, the Web, and the blogosphere are indeed exhibiting much greater order than the freewheeling, "everyone a pamphleteer" image would suggest, this structure does not replicate a mass-media model.

In what way, first, is attention concentrated on the Net?

figure 7.4

Figure 7.4: Illustration of How Normal Distribution and Power Law Distribution Would Differ in Describing How Many Web Sites Have Few or Many Links Pointing at Them

The Internet and the World Wide Web offered a testable setting, where large-scale investigation could be done automatically by studying link structure (who is linked-in to and by whom, who links out and to whom, how these are related, and so on), and where the practical applications of better understanding were easily articulated - such as the design of better search engines.

If one assumes that most people read things by either following links, or by using a search engine, like Google, that heavily relies on counting inlinks to rank its results, then it is likely that the number of visitors to a Web page, and more recently, the number of readers of blogs, will follow a similarly highly skew distribution.

The stories offered in this chapter and throughout this book present a puzzle for this interpretation of the power law distribution of links in the network as re-creating a concentrated medium.

Within two months of the publication of Barabási and Albert's article, Adamic and Huberman had published a letter arguing that, if Barabási and Albert were right about preferential attachment, then older sites should systematically be among those that are at the high end of the distribution, while new ones will wallow in obscurity.

Developments in network topology theory and its relationship to the structure of the empirically mapped real Internet offer a map of the networked information environment that is indeed quite different from the naďve model of "everyone a pamphleteer."

First, links are not smoothly distributed throughout the network.

Second, at a macrolevel and in smaller subclusters, the power law distribution does not resolve into everyone being connected in a mass-media model relationship to a small number of major "backbone" sites.

figure 7.5

Figure 7.5: Bow Tie Structure of the Web

One way of interpreting this structure as counterdemocratic is to say: This means that half of all Web sites are not reachable from the other half - the "IN," "tendrils," and disconnected portions cannot be reached from any of the sites in SCC and OUT.

Third, another finding of Web topology and critical adjustment to the basic Barabási and Albert model is that when the topically or organizationally related clusters become small enough - on the order of hundreds or even low thousands of Web pages - they no longer follow a pure power law distribution.

figure 7.6

Figure 7.6: Illustration of a Skew Distribution That Does Not Follow a Power Law

These findings are critical to the interpretation of the distribution of links as it relates to human attention and communication.

The fourth and last piece of mapping the network as a platform for the public sphere is called the "small-worlds effect."

Based on Stanley Milgram's sociological experiment and on mathematical models later proposed by Duncan Watts and Steven Strogatz, both theoretical and empirical work has shown that the number of links that must be traversed from any point in the network to any other point is relatively small./28

Fairly shallow "walks" - that is, clicking through three or four layers of links - allow a user to cover a large portion of the Web.

What is true of the Web as a whole turns out to be true of the blogosphere as well, and even of the specifically political blogosphere.

This body of literature on network topology suggests a model for how order has emerged on the Internet, the World Wide Web, and the blogosphere.

Individuals and individual organizations cluster around topical, organizational, or other common features.

The result is an ordered system of intake, filtering, and synthesis that can in theory emerge in networks generally, and empirically has been shown to have emerged on the Web.

The effects of the topology of the network are reinforced by the cultural forms of linking, e-mail lists, and the writable Web.

Our understanding of the emerging structure of the networked information environment, then, provides the basis for a response to the family of criticisms of the first generation claims that the Internet democratizes.

The second claim was that fragmentation would cause polarization.

The third claim was that money would reemerge as the primary source of power brokerage because of the difficulty of getting attention on the Net.

The peer-produced structure of the attention backbone suggests that money is neither necessary nor sufficient to attract attention in the networked public sphere (although nothing suggests that money has become irrelevant to political attention given the continued importance of mass media).

The networked public sphere is not only more resistant to control by money, but it is also less susceptible to the lowest-common-denominator orientation that the pursuit of money often leads mass media to adopt.

To conclude, we need to consider the attractiveness of the networked public sphere not from the perspective of the mid-1990s utopianism, but from the perspective of how it compares to the actual media that have dominated the public sphere in all modern democracies.

There is, in this story, an enormous degree of contingency and factual specificity.

Who Will Play the Watchdog Function?

A distinct critique leveled at the networked public sphere as a platform for democratic politics is the concern for who will fill the role of watchdog.

This diagnosis of the potential of the networked public sphere underrepresents its productive capacity.

The Diebold case was not an aberration, but merely a particularly rich case study of a much broader phenomenon, most extensively described in Dan Gilmore's We the Media.

The point is not to respond to the argument with a litany of anecdotes.

Note that while my focus in this chapter has been mostly the organization of public discourse, both the Sinclair and the Diebold case studies also identify characteristics of distributed political action.

Using Networked Communication to Work Around Authoritarian Control

The Internet and the networked public sphere offer a different set of potential benefits, and suffer a different set of threats, as a platform for liberation in authoritarian countries.

The case of Radio B92 in Yugoslavia offers an example.

This is not to say that the Internet will of necessity in the long term lead all authoritarian regimes to collapse.

Introducing Internet communications into a society does not, however, immediately and automatically mean that an open, liberal public sphere emerges.

This level of censorship may indeed be effective enough for a government negotiating economic and trade expansion with political stability and control.

Media other than static Web sites present substantially deeper problems for regimes like those of China and Iran.

To conclude, in authoritarian countries, the introduction of Internet communications makes it harder and more costly for governments to control the public sphere.

Toward a Networked Public Sphere

The first generation of statements that the Internet democratizes was correct but imprecise.

Part of what has changed with the Internet is technical infrastructure.

In the networked information environment, everyone is free to observe, report, question, and debate, not only in principle, but in actual capability.


1. Reno v. ACLU, 521 U.S. 844, 852-853, and 896-897 (1997).

2. Elizabeth Jensen, "Sinclair Fires Journalist After Critical Comments," Los Angeles Times, October 19, 2004.

3. Jensen, "Sinclair Fires Journalist"; Sheridan Lyons, "Fired Reporter Tells Why He Spoke Out," Baltimore Sun, October 29, 2004.

4. The various posts are archived and can be read, chronologically, at

5. Duane D. Stanford, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, October 31, 2002, 1A.

6. Katherine Q. Seelye, "The 2002 Campaign: The States; Georgia About to Plunge into Touch-Screen Voting," New York Times, October 30, 2002, A22.

7. Edward Walsh, "Election Day to Be Test of Voting Process," Washington Post, November 4, 2002, A1.

8. Washington Post, December 12, 2002.

9. Online Policy Group v. Diebold, Inc., 337 F. Supp. 2d 1195 (2004).

10. California Secretary of State Voting Systems Panel, Meeting Minutes, November 3, 2003,

11. Eli Noam, "Will the Internet Be Bad for Democracy?" (November 2001),

12. Eli Noam, "The Internet Still Wide, Open, and Competitive?" Paper presented at The Telecommunications Policy Research Conference, September 2003,

13. Federal Communications Commission, Report on High Speed Services, December 2003.

14. See Eszter Hargittai, "The Changing Online Landscape: From Free-For-All to Commercial Gatekeeping,"

15. Derek de Solla Price, "Networks of Scientific Papers," Science 149 (1965): 510; Herbert Simon, "On a Class of Skew Distribution Function," Biometrica 42 (1955): 425-440, reprinted in Herbert Simon, Models of Man Social and Rational: Mathematical Essays on Rational Human Behavior in a Social Setting (New York: Garland, 1957).

16. Albert-Lászio Barabási and Reka Albert, "Emergence of Scaling in Random Networks," Science 286 (1999): 509.

17. Bernardo Huberman and Lada Adamic, "Growth Dynamics of the World Wide Web," Nature 401 (1999): 131.

18. Albert-Lászio Barabási, Linked, How Everything Is Connected to Everything Else and What It Means for Business, Science, and Everyday Life (New York: Penguin, 2003), 56-57.

19. Lada Adamic and Bernardo Huberman, "Power Law Distribution of the World Wide Web," Science 287 (2000): 2115.

20. Ravi Kumar et al., "Trawling the Web for Emerging Cyber-Communities," WWW8/Computer Networks 31, nos. 11-16 (1999): 1481-1493.

21. Gary W. Flake et al., "Self-Organization and Identification of Web Communities," IEEE Computer 35, no. 3 (2002): 66-71.

22. Lada Adamic and Natalie Glance, "The Political Blogosphere and the 2004 Election: Divided They Blog," March 1, 2005,

23. M.E.J. Newman, "The Structure and Function of Complex Networks," Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics Review 45, section 4.2.2 (2003): 167-256; S. N. Dorogovstev and J.F.F. Mendes, Evolution of Networks: From Biological Nets to the Internet and WWW (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

24. This structure was first described by Andrei Broder et al., "Graph Structure of the Web," paper presented at www9 conference (1999),

25. Dill et al., "Self-Similarity in the Web" (San Jose, CA: IBM Almaden Research Center, 2001); S. N. Dorogovstev and J.F.F. Mendes, Evolution of Networks.

26. Soumen Chakrabarti et al., "The Structure of Broad Topics on the Web," WWW2002, Honolulu, HI, May 7-11, 2002.

27. Daniel W. Drezner and Henry Farrell, "The Power and Politics of Blogs" (July 2004),

28. D. J. Watts and S. H. Strogatz, "Collective Dynamics of 'Small World' Networks," Nature 393 (1998): 440-442; D. J. Watts, Small Worlds: The Dynamics of Networks Between Order and Randomness (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999).

29. Clay Shirky, "Power Law, Weblogs, and Inequality" (February 8, 2003),; Jason Kottke, "Weblogs and Power Laws" (February 9, 2003),

30. Ravi Kumar et al., "On the Bursty Evolution of Blogspace," Proceedings of WWW2003, May 20-24, 2003,

31. Both of these findings are consistent with even more recent work by Hargittai, E., J. Gallo and S. Zehnder, "Mapping the Political Blogosphere: An Analysis of Large-Scale Online Political Discussions," 2005. Poster presented at the International Communication Association meetings, New York.

32. Harvard Kennedy School of Government, Case Program: " 'Big Media' Meets 'Bloggers': Coverage of Trent Lott's Remarks at Strom Thurmond's Birthday Party,"

33. Howard Rheingold, Smart Mobs, The Next Social Revolution (Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing, 2002).

34. Data taken from CIA World Fact Book (Washington, DC: Central Intelligence Agency, 2004).

35. Lawrence Solum and Minn Chung, "The Layers Principle: Internet Architecture and the Law" (working paper no. 55, University of San Diego School of Law, Public Law and Legal Theory, June 2003).

36. Amnesty International, People's Republic of China, State Control of the Internet in China (2002).

37. A synthesis of news-based accounts is Babak Rahimi, "Cyberdissent: The Internet in Revolutionary Iran," Middle East Review of International Affairs 7, no. 3 (2003).