Who Runs the Internet? A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast

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(Photo: Julian Burgess)

(Photo: Julian Burgess)

Our latest podcast is called “Who Runs the Internet?” (You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript; it includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.)

It begins with Stephen Dubner and Steve Levitt talking about whether virtual mayhem — from online ranting to videogame violence — may help reduce mayhem in the real world. There is no solid data on this, Levitt says, but he hypothesizes:

LEVITT: Maybe the biggest effect of all of having these violent video games is that they’re super fun for people to play, especially adolescent boys, maybe even adolescent boys who are prone to real violence. And so if you can make video games fun enough, then kids will stop doing everything else. They’ll stop watching TV, they’ll stop doing homework, and they’ll stop going out and creating mayhem on the street.

This episode then moves on to a bigger question about the Internet itself: who runs it? As Dubner asks: “Who’s in charge of the gazillions of conversations and transactions and character assassinations that happen online every day?”

Internet scholar Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, tells us that 60 percent of adults around the world are now connected to the same communications grid. (South Korea, he says, is the “most wired” country.) And this global connectivity is interesting, he says, because it’s not like there is an international body governing what’s online:

SHIRKY: Well, I mean, famously, the regulatory overhead on the Internet is permissive and minimal. In fact, the thing that freaked everyone out about it in the 90s when it was spreading on the wings of the web was that no one was in charge. … There are famous stories of bosses fretting that because all of their employees were suddenly sending international emails that they were suddenly going to be hit by the bill by the people who ran the Internet.

This week’s episode also serves as a prelude to next week’s, which discusses who’s in charge of — well, the whole world.


I can almost guarantee that the increased portability of video games is going to lead to your second scenario, where more young men are back on the street and committing crimes between casual video game use. Probably not to an extreme degree, but I would not be surprised to see crime slowly tick upwards as we get more powerful mobile gaming platforms.


I want to ask a question that seemed obvious and maybe even overlooked in the last bit of this show. Mr. Levitt asked if people having the ability to rant online led to less violence in real life. The question I believe he stated was something like ' isn't a rant from someone online better than a real punch in the face'. In other words, is it not better to be chastised online then to receive real, physical pain from someone. I think that there is an easy way to check this--road rage. Isn't the phenomenon that was brought on and broadcast to the world via individual's accessibility to the internet and their ability to share their feelings and daily-life events instantaneously, a good measure? If greater access to a place to rant is a factor to lower real-world violence, then it stands to reason that road rage incidents would go down. Clearly, that fact that more people have a camera phone with them at all times must also be considered as an additional factor, but if Levitt's idea is true then shouldn't the incidents of road rage go down in some accord with the great prevalence of online rants. Aren't both just a child of the accessibility to modern technology? Road rage being a unseen offshoot of living in a technical age full of new and overwhelming stress--at least, if my theory holds true--in the past?


Lee Wright

I always enjoy the podcast and especially this one concerning "do online rants and violent video games reduce actual violence?. Many thought provoking concepts here.

I do think this may be a possibility for some. However, I think there is a larger picture in society: mainstream adults, partially due to the online rants and perhaps violent video games feel very free to rant - often at family or friends.

I think we have less self control as a society.

Thanks for the podcast

Jessica Davis

Just listened to the podcast and as usual it makes me think about the world in a new way. I think it's funny how there are all these niche jobs in the world that a person doesn't have to think about on an every day basis but someone has to and I see for you fine folks at Freakonomics one of those niche jobs is someone has the task of monitoring the comments section. I think it's sad that the anonymity of the internet has given people license to tear others down.

On a totally off topic question, what was the song in background there at the end? I couldn't find any where on the site where there are music credits.

Thank you for all your questioning and exploring.


I would absolutely love a track list of the music used in your podcasts!
can anyone help?

Data Roads Foundation

I know this comment is very late, but I wanted to point out that defining who currently runs the Internet is a separate question from who *should* run the Internet. We try to help define that here:


Austin Surratt

I agree, being a teen, I go to school some days I get sick of dealing with jerks and other such wastes of grey matter. So instead of beating the living crap out of them then and there, I wait till I get home and blow the heads off of aliens to release stress.

Nancy Folsom

Just listened to this (2014.09.23) and want to tell you that Mr. Levitt's closing remarks about the culture of wide-open commenting has caused me to shift my position on that topic. (No surprise, I always learn something from your podcasts.) I'm software developer, and the Internet has been the mechanism by which I've participated in a social and professional life. I believed, strongly, that it was best to let commenting be unmoderated. That that it was good to see the depths and heights of our exchanges. But, I can see that some moderation can be helpful. I always worry that it will necessarily be of a nanny-for-adults repressive action, but Wikipedia's solution to the hot topics is healthy, IMO. So, I think I see better that a compromise is necessary for the health of a community. Anyway, thanks.


Well things like wikipedia don't work as well as people managed as has been exposed in more recent scandals like gamergate.
and more is out there.
The self regulation on the internet seems to rely on the assumption that the progressive left which controls most of the levers of power remains true to their principles of being for freedom of speech and thought. So what happens when this becomes corrupted is the question? We've seen that answered in gamergate, which is not covered by the media for the very same reasons that it exists. What happens when a small group of influencial tech and gaming sites collaborate from a secret mailing list to control a narrative. They poison wikipedia with their citations, which in turn poisons the rest of the media. Of course this doesn't happen without a lot of biases and agendas working in its favor. But the root of this is that a biased clickbait media and social forces can lead to a situation of mass corruption on the internet. The links above are just of wikipedia's systematic failure, where editors with agendas are allowed to become entrenched and control such controversial pages. We've seen this systematic failure across both the 4th and 5th estates in this debacle. And its silently been happening in the past with other groups, like the mra.
Honey Badger Radio: Your Princess is in another castle
as explained by the honey badgers, where any editor for the mra wikipedia entry is vetted for involvement in mra websites or reddit, so in effect, the only people who are allowed to edit that page are feminists. And this happens across media because whether people want to acknowledge it or not, these are the people everyone is scared of. People will print je suis hedbo cartoons long before they critique a feminist.
Just look at this.
The ABC News Nightline slander piece about gamergate, it yielded 29k downvotes since its release, and thousands of comments have been deleted as recorded by professor Nick Flor who tracked the views and comment count. Here are the charts.
The dip in the chart shows when ABC just started wiping out the comments which were undermining their credibility. http://vidauniversoetudo.tumblr.com/post/108257320844/actuallyaboutethics-tonight-on-abcs Even prominent youtubers like Total Biscuit who has almost 2 million subscribers had their comments deleted, even after he had thousands of up votes on his comments, the same happened to women who spoke out against it and also had thousands of up votes.
But this isn't covered in the media, and hasn't been covered for 5 months now.

You may have seen this
Neel Kolhatkar
Which is at over a third of a million views in under a week, it captures the essence of what we are dealing with here, so it spoke to many people, but again, its not covered.
So while I'm not saying the internet should be regulated, I'm showing you there are some serious flaws in the system.


Andy Kuiper

---> "virtual mayhem — from online ranting to videogame violence — may help reduce mayhem in the real world" <--- to some extent, I believe this to be true. On the other hand, there is the desensitization aspect to consider. Hard to say if it's good or bad really; I think it's a bit of both.