This great analogy was offered today in my class on techological regulation by Drs. B. van den Berg.

Halfway the 19th century the city of Paris was breeding with unrest, leading up to a series of uprisings in the revolution of 1848, overthrowing King Louis-Philippe and eventually establishing the second French Republic by Napoleon Bonaparte.

The urban planning Napoleon then undertook to gain foot in the city is not unlike the measures we see governments taking now in order to regulate behaviour on the internet trough their influence in its technical architecture.

Rue des Marmousets around 1853

The heart of the turmoil was the medieval city center of Paris. The countless small alleyways gave rebels a possibility to hide from law enforcement and block the way with barricades. It was nearly impossible for the King’s army to enter this part of town due to the many nooks and tight corners at this point. As does the decentralised nature of today’s internet, the absence of oversight made possible a wave of new ideas and the chance to experiment.

Although he had risen to power due to this fruitful instability in the capitol, Napoleon was like any executive and sought to consolidate his power base. Architect Georges-Eugène Haussmann was instructed to redesign the city center to allow easy access for Napoleon’s troops, thus creating the long lines of sight in Paris we are so familiar with now. For example, the wonderful avenue de l’Opéra was designed completely by Hausmann.

Avenue de l'Opéra

Today, the main headache for those seeking establishment is the internet. As this network was originally designed to allow the US defense department opportunistic communication in the event of a nuclear blast, it works without a central hub of communication and thus without central oversight. Most of the architecture underlying the technology we use every day is based on this principle and is therefore hard to regulate.

With some fantasy, you’ll see how shady discussion boards and online black markets compare to the nooks and corners of medieval Paris. In an effort to tame the fringes of the web, lawmakers will point to extremities such as child pornography to convince us of their legitimate snatch of the web. This leads to measures introducing filtering of content, surveillance of traffic, and technical measures to prevent unfettered copying of files.

Over the next few years it will be decided where the jurisdiction of states ends. Although we all appreciate stability in our societies as we do the beautiful long lanes of Paris, let us remember that there is case to be made for productive imbalance. Both in the French Revolution and our internet today.

Map of Hausmann’s work CC-BY-SA Dimitri Destugues