On Thursday the president of the United States signed an executive order that aims to address the liability regime of social media companies. A wide variety of reports have highlighted the problems with this move, but there is one problem that we find especially troubling: the danger of politicizing what is fundamentally a legal debate around party lines.
The president needs to stay out of this debate.
The Internet and politics have always had an awkward relationship. There have been numerous attempts to bring the Internet into mainstream politics over the years, most of which have been unsuccessful. The main reason is that the Internet is not a static “thing,” but a model for how networks and computers can interconnect through voluntary collaboration. A key characteristic of this model is that it’s decentralized, which means it doesn’t have a central point of control that dictates how the Internet should evolve. There is no switch that one can turn on and off, and as soon as policymakers or regulators try to impose one they inevitably chip away at the Internet itself. This characteristic has always been its most powerful asset, and the reason it has been an infinite source of innovation and growth - from the Web to ever-evolving smart devices, homes, etc. This lack of central control is a feature of the Internet, not a bug!
Most of the early legal frameworks that have been implemented in the Internet reflect this apolitical premise, albeit at different levels and to different degrees. But there is really no other law that does this as gracefully as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act in the United States, which undergirds “intermediary liability” online.
Online intermediary liability protection first emerged in the United States in 1995 as a policy discussion regarding the scope of responsibility intermediaries should have. At the time, there was no Facebook or Twitter, so the law was aimed at services like CompuServe, Prodigy and AOL. However, it set the tone for all future services and would later be exported to the world as one of the most positive Internet legal developments. The question was simple: should intermediaries be liable for content posted using their services or for actions performed by third parties, i.e. their users?
This question would fundamentally shape the future of the Internet. It discouraged attempts of centralized control because it did not force providers to perform functions they were never originally supposed to do. Similar to how telecommunications services are not responsible for the things phone users say over the phone, it was clear that online intermediaries and service providers would need similar commonsense restrictions on what they could be liable for.
Immunity from liability ensures a level playing field and provides autonomy to a diverse set of actors to perform their intended functions. In this context, Section 230 provided predictability in the Internet’s highly unpredictable environment. No one can predict the next innovation; the Internet is designed this way. The Internet’s highly unpredictable environment can only unfold to its full potential if it operates within a legal framework that is obvious in its intention and unsurprising in its outcomes. Section 230 does this. Politicizing it would reverse years of such predictability and could place the Internet’s future potential in jeopardy.
With this in mind, one can see how the executive order is problematic, setting in motion a dangerous precedent both for the Internet and speech. The problem is that a lot of the provisions in this order appear to be what Stanford’s Director of Intermediary Liability, Daphne Keller, calls “atmospheric” – politically driven questions that should not be part of the legal debate related to the scope of intermediary liability protections. They constitute a distraction, which could cause a series of unintended consequences for the evolution of the Internet.
While conversations about the evolving scope of Section 230 are healthy, they should not be based on fashionable political motivations. Section 230 has a historical track record of promoting innovation and creativity online. By separating it from partisan politics, we can ensure that these benefits are retained.
Note: this post originally appeared on The Hill
On January 28, the UK government was set to announce whether it would allow Huawei, the Chinese information and communication technologies provider, to develop its 5G infrastructure. Given Brexit and its need to form new alliances, the decision was marked as a significant moment for the UK’s trade future. Leading up to the day of the decision, the UK was subjected to a significant amount of pressure from the United States government to reject any deal with Huawei. (Similar pressure was exercised towards any other US ally considering to use Huawei’s 5G infrastructure). In a tweet sent by US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, the day before the decision was due, he made the claim that Britain’s decision would effectively be one of sovereignty.
We can debate the merits of this claim, but the thing that I want to focus on is the often-use of the word ‘sovereignty’ in conjunction to the Internet and technology. It is interesting to observe how in almost every single discussion about the role governments should have in the Internet, the term ‘sovereignty’ pops up. Terms like “digital sovereignty”, “technological sovereignty” or “Internet sovereignty” have become commonplace.
But, does sovereignty help advance the Internet governance conversations?
The answer is an emphatic ‘no’; sovereignty adds an extra layer of complexity and only pushes states further apart while, simultaneously, it undermines and fragments the Internet. Sovereignty and the Internet are – prima facie – two irreconcilable concepts.
Born out of the effort to connect networks with one another, the Internet was originally designed to not recognize any geographical boundaries. Its design embodies a true decentralized structure in the sense that it is both architecturally decentralized – it runs on multiple computers – as well as politically– no central authority has power over those networks. This decentralized nature has further allowed the various autonomous networks to interconnect with one another irrespective of where in the world they are located. In fact, since its inception, one of the Internet’s distinguishable characteristics has been its global reach: “any endpoint of the Internet can address any other endpoint, and the information received at one endpoint is as intended by the sender, wherever the receiver connects to the Internet. Implicit in this is the requirement of global, managed addressing and naming services”.
Sovereignty, on the other hand, is all about strict geographical boundaries. It refers to the legal autonomy of the state to act independently and without constraints within its own territory. Under its Rousseaunian tradition it reflects the power of the state emerging from its people and for the people.
In the context of geopolitical disputes for transnational communication technologies, sovereignty is currently seen as the construction of a governance system with the ability to coordinate and manage exchanges that may or, may not, address primarily issues of privacy/data protection and security. In this context, its application is one of scale. Historically, countries always sought to impose some sort of domestic legislation to the Internet, but, at the same time, most of them equally understood and respected the need for network autonomy and integrity. Over the past few years, however, there has been a significant shift in this thinking, with an increasing number of countries now actively seeking to centralize control over the Internet. For any country interested in the governance of the Internet, the claim to sovereignty is a claim to power.
Such a Foucauldian approach considers sovereign power as a constant negotiation about the validity of claims of knowledge and truth, which dictates the power dynamics within a system. In this context, we can observe countries, like Russia and China, racing to codify their own notions of sovereignty in international law, much in the same way, the West was integrating its ideas of “universal values” when the Internet first emerged and for the best part of the its commercial history.
Three distinguishable forms of “Internet sovereignty” have emerged thus far.
The first one is China’s vision of sovereignty which is predominantly attached to notions of national security and securitization. (Russia is also part of this thinking, but its vision and technology implementation is not nearly as advanced as China’s.) China’s Internet sovereignty is all about the right of national governments to supervise, regulate and censor all electronic content that passes through its borders – what Bill Bishop has referred to as the “invisible birdcage”. In China, “Internet sovereignty” first appeared in a 2010 White Paper, which indicated that “within Chinese territory the Internet is under the jurisdiction of Chinese sovereignty. […] To build, utilize and administer the Internet well is an issue that concerns national economic prosperity and development, state security and social harmony, state sovereignty and dignity, and the basic interests of the people”. Since then and through a series of laws focusing primarily on cybersecurity, China has increasingly placed chokepoints on its Internet infrastructure, requiring network operators to store data within China and allowing Chinese authorities to conduct spot-checks on the network operations of any company operating out of China. On December 1st, 2019, China rolled out its Cybersecurity Multi-level Protection Scheme (MLPS 2.0), aiming to create a system that is able to monitor every activity in China: Internet, mobile, WeChat type social networks, cloud systems, national and international email – everything. The framework’s goal is not to empower users or even allow companies to make money; it is an attempt to centralize control over key network operations to the Chinese government. With this strategy China does not seek to close itself out of the global Internet but, instead, to strengthen global network integration.
For Europe, sovereignty means independence from the dominant US technology companies. Europe started flirting with “digital sovereignty” as a response to the Snowden revelations in 2013. A 2014 research paper by the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi) and New America’s Open Technology Institute identified around 12 European countries using the term or considering practical policy solutions to its end. These policies ranged from the construction of new undersea cables to stronger data protection rules; they detailed different layers of extreme with some going as far as to suggest forced data localization and routing rules. Although most of these proposals never materialized, Europe has integrated sovereignty in its recent digital strategy. Last year, Ursula Von Der Leyen, Europe’s chief Commissioner stated that “it is not too late to achieve technological sovereignty in some critical areas.” Similarly, her number two and the EU’s competition czarina, Commissioner Margrethe Vestager argued that digital sovereignty can be achieved through “the development of key value chains and technologies that are of strategic importance for Europe” and which should be “open, truly European, innovative and lead to widespread knowledge dissemination”.
And, then there is the case of India. India presents a big oxymoron being both the largest democracy in the world and the world leader in deploying Internet shutdowns as a political tool to assert its sovereignty. Since August 2019, India has sanctioned the longest Internet shutdown ever to occur in a democracy, in the disputed Kashmir region. Discretionary and vague legal rules regarding the control the government can exercise over India’s Internet service providers has further enabled the government to restrict or limit access on regional and district levels. But, it is its data localization laws that further indicate India’s direction towards a more sovereignty-based Internet. A series of recent laws require different forms of data, from governmental to heath and financial to be stored in India. Additionally, India’s data protection legislation lays out the conditions under which “critical” and “sensitive” data are to be stored locally; this includes, financial, health and biometric information. An official document by the Committee of Experts on data protection acknowledged that although “laws facilitating cross-border data flows […] greatly foster research, technology development and economic growth”, critical personal data should be processed only in India with no cross-border transfer allowed.
So, what does this all mean and why should we care?
For the state, to view the Internet as nothing more than an extension of its sovereignty right should not come as a surprise. The key role of states is to make more of life ‘legible’ as James Scott has convincingly argued – this means to better record and measure human affairs in an effort to make them easier to manage. However, the drive for ‘legible’ or readable structures that can be easily understood and regulated often comes with a fatal flaw; in the top-down drive to simplify and formalize our understanding of complex systems, we sometimes disregard the local and practical knowledge critical to managing the complexity. To this end, our expectations that the state should – or would for that matter – see the Internet in a different fashion must be moderated. With this in mind, what is the impact sovereignty has on the current state of play?
The first point of this consideration is the pressure sovereignty places on the Internet. Although as we said previously, it should be expected that governments apply rules of sovereignty in all aspects of international relations, including the Internet, the stricter the application of those rules, the more danger there is for the Internet to splinter and fragment. And, by this we don’t mean that the global Internet will cease to exist; rather, it will not be neither desirable nor beneficial for people and networks to participate in the global Internet. Its resilience, which depends on the very fact that networks are diversely spread around the world, will diminish and with it any need for interoperation.
The other problem is how sovereignty contributes to state actors not being willing to collaborate. States are already split in their views of the Internet – a split that grows bigger. A UN resolution by Russia in the last days of 2019 on cybercrime, demonstrated the increasing division amongst the views of states. The resolution, which was opposed by the US and Europe but backed by China, passed 79 to 60, with 33 abstentions. And, although we should not be sounding the alarm bells yet, still this resolution indicates a clear move towards a more sovereign based approach for the Internet, which does not create any conditions for collaboration. In fact, sovereignty is the antithesis to collaboration and, this constitutes a problem. The Internet’s past is based on collaboration. Its future also depends on it.
Why is all this important? Because, whichever nation manages to crack the sovereignty code, will also determine the Internet we will end up using. Will it be an open and global space based on interoperation and mutual agreement? Or, will it be a closed and fragmented model based on geographical boundaries and cultural relativism.
By now, are all exposed to the narrative of how the Internet is no longer a safe place. It is full of bots, misinformation, abuse and violence; it is a space that has been overtaken by terrorists and extremists. The Internet is weaponized to influence elections, undermine democracies and instill fear in its users. That’s the story we are told.
No one can deny the swift change that is taking place in global politics. The “brave new world’ that has emerged is, currently, based on isolation and fear. We have officially entered the politics of fear.
How true is this though? How real is fear in the Internet?
Arguably, fear is as old as life. It is deeply part of all living organisms that have survived extinction through billions of years of evolution. Its roots go deep in our biological and psychological existence, and it is one of the most intimate feelings we get to experience. Demagogues have always used fear as a means to intimidate their subordinates or enemies, while shepherding the tribe by the leaders. Fear is a very strong tool that can blur humans’ logic and change their behavior.
Fear has become part of the Internet experience. Every week there is another data breach, another privacy violation, child abusive content proliferates, questionable forums like 8chan are inreasing and people are constantly bullied for expressing – or not expressing – their opinions. The Internet is a dark place. That’s the only story we get to hear. That’s the story world leaders – democratic and not – tell to justify their attempts to control the Internet and turn it into a centralized and restricted space. This is the global trend. But, is it?
The past ten days I have been fortunate to spend some time in New Zealand. What a pleasant surprise it has been. I left the European way of Interneting, a way that is based on distrust, individualism and fear, only to be exposed to the Kiwi way, which is based on trust, collaboration and hope. I, myself, had lost hope that such a way still exists.
March 15, 2019 is the date New Zealanders - and the rest of the world - will never forget. A gunman, carrying two semi-automatic weapons, two shotguns and a lever-action firearm opened fire indiscriminately at two mosques in Christchurch during Friday prayer. The first attack was livestreamed on Facebook. It was viewed 200 times during its live broadcast and 4000 times in total before it was removed. According to Facebook, the company was notified about the livestream 12 minutes after the video had ended. Over the 24 hours following the attack, individuals attempted to re-upload the video 1.5 million times.
New Zealand had a choice to make: succumb to fear or hang on to hope. And, it chose the latter. Post-Christchurch, the government of New Zealand did not order a shutdown of Internet or its services; it did not rush through legislation that sought to regulate the way companies and users interact in the Internet. Its government did not engage in fear mongering. Instead, led by its Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand turned to the international community asking for collaboration to address what she considered to be a global issue -- how to deal with extremist and violent content online (what would become the “Christchurch call”). In praising this collaborative approach during my panel intervention at NetHui, New Zealand’s version of an Internet governance dialogue, I was told: “this is the Kiwi way of doing things”. Well, the Kiwi way, is also the Internet way. Bringing people together, to collaborate to solve “wicked problems” and address complex questions has been the “Internet way” all along. Without necessarily realizing it, New Zealand was upholding one of the Internet’s most fundamental properties.
During her speech at NetHui, the Prime Minister recognized the challenges the Internet is facing and the slow progress post-Christchurch. Yet again, this did not make her move into panic mode. Instead, she reaffirmed and recommitted to an open, secure and free Internet. She mentioned that she still believes in the ability of the Internet to bring positive change; to be the space of expression and creativity; to be the engine of unstoppable innovation. She said she wanted to do the right thing.
Let's not miss the significance of this. Without intending, New Zealand has become the example of how we must all approach the challenges we face in the Internet; it has become the Internet's champion. Sure, there are still things that the Kiwis need to learn about the Internet and understand better the way it works. Sure the “Christchurch call” process has its own deficiencies and issues. But, ultimately, it is all about New Zealand’s willingness not to close, shut down, centralize or try to control the Internet that they must be commended.
The ‘kiwi way’ of Interneting must not go unnoticed. It must become a lesson for the rest of the world leaders.
Last week was a busy one for Europe. A preliminary question over the global reach of “right to be forgotten” reached the European Court of Justice, the European Parliament voted on the highly contested Copyright Directive and a new regulation to curb online terrorism was hinted. (More on these regulations in a while).
Such an activity should not be a surprise to anyone. For quite some time now (but mainly over the past couple of years), state actors have engaged in a regulatory race over the Internet. Concentrated at national regulation, this race is important because whoever comes on top will get to determine much of the way the Internet will evolve.
Europe is leading the regulatory race. This is not surprising, given the historical broad consensus that sees Europe as a regulatory “great power”. A combination of a significant market size, a sophisticated regulatory capability and a culture of rigorous regulations - all these make Europe a leader in regulation. Europe has the reputation of a ‘normative hegemon’ or even an ‘empire’ that is in the position to coercively promote its own regulatory culture in areas as diverse as the environment, competition, consumer protection, etc.
The Internet is its next frontier. Over the past few months, Europe has been preoccupied with either adopting or working on legislation that would end up affecting the global Internet (and users around the world).
The start was with the General Data Protection Regulations (GDRP). Seeking to address the real issue of privacy, Europe promulgated the GDPR as a statute that would protect the data of European citizens held anywhere in the world. The impact of the GDPR was asteroid-equivalent. Companies, NGOs and any entity holding any personal data of European citizens have rushed to comply. A growing number of countries have been reshaping their laws to reflect the language of the GDRP.
Moreover, a preliminary question before the European Court of Justice is asking whether Google must enforce the “right to be forgotten” – which necessitates that search engines delete results based on European law – at a global scale, i.e. deleting results from its global index. But “can Europe export privacy rules world-wide” is the question that will determine much of the conversation in the future and depending on how the court rules.
And, then there is the Copyright Directive. Like everywhere else, Europe has been struggling to figure out how to update its copyright regime in light of the Internet. And, this time around there was no exemption. A highly contentious article 13 see platforms directly accountable for content they host (apart from some minor exemptions). The Directive is not explicit as to how platforms will go about doing that but there is general consensus that in order to comply they will need to implement “upload filters” – detection tools that will crawl all over the Internet ‘judging’ the content we upload. And, this rule will not remain shy of any global implications. According to Wired, “although the rules would only apply inside the EU, it's possible that companies would apply filters globally, just as some companies are complying with EU privacy regulations even outside of Europe.”
Similar effects will ensue from the Commission’s proposal “to get terrorist content off the web”. During his State of the Union address, President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, stated: “[…] the Commission is today proposing new rules to get terrorist content off the web within one hour—the critical window in which the greatest damage is done.” Given the state of the debate currently across the world over the content hosted in platforms, it should be anticipated that, platforms will implement this rule globally, only if for the costs associated with not doing this.
In all this regulatory action, Europe has the unique opportunity to be seen as the beacon of promise to address some of the real issues that permeate the Internet. Fake news, extremist content, manipulation of democratic processes and, massive user-data breaches are only but a few of the current problems the Internet faces. Europe could have set a positive tone, one that could demonstrate its wish to protect the Internet. But, it didn’t.
The thing is this. When people say that the Internet is a complex ecosystem, they do not exaggerate. Its complexity mainly derives from the diverse number of participants and the relationships they need to have in order to make sure the networks they join the Internet interoperate. Unlike other technologies, the Internet comes with certain characteristics as part of its design. These characteristics are unique in that they “have enabled the Internet to serve as a platform for seemingly limitless innovation, outline not only its technology, but also its shape in terms of global impact and social structures”.
Europe did not deal with this complexity nor were the Internet’s characteristics part of its regulatory thinking. Why else, when parts of the copyright directive were debated, would it turn its back on the advice of 70+ creators and innovators, including the father of the Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Wikipedia’s Founder, Jimmy Wales? Why would Europe be instructing companies to deploy technology -- “automated detection tools” –tools that will directly impact the openness of the Internet?
So, we need to take a step back and recalibrate. Collaboration is key as is the realization that, if regulation is to be effective, it needs to be technology-neutral, and technology-informed so it does not operate to the detriment of the Internet.
My current boss, Andrew Sullivan, summarized all this pretty accurately when he wrote: “Things have changed. Every technology can be used for negative ends. The Internet still, plainly, brings gains in efficiency, convenience, and communications. Yet in the recent past, some of the negative uses have become apparent, which leads some people to ask whether the Internet is just too dangerous. This environment has produced a golden opportunity for those who always preferred a sanitized, tightly-controlled utility to the generative, empowering Internet. These forces claim that only national governments, treaties, laws, regulations, and monopolies can protect us from the problems we face. They do not want the extraordinary collaboration of the Internet. They think there is some mere political choice to be made between the Internet we have known on the one hand, and a tidy, regulated network on the other. If these forces are successful, we will all lose.”
 To date, the European Commission has recognized Andorra, Argentina, Canada, Faroe Islands, Guernsey, Israel, Isle of Man, Jersey, New Zealand, Switzerland, Uruguay, and the USA (limited to the Privacy Shield framework) as providing adequate protection, while Japan and South Korea are in discussions with the EU. European Commission, ‘Adequacy of the Protection of Personal Data in Non-EU Countries. How the EU Determines if a Non-EU Country has an Adequate Level of Data Protection’, https://goo.gl/8a4Sds
There is an undeniable attractiveness to decentralization. As social animals, we are naturally drawn to anything that allows us to participate and have a voice and decentralization does that naturally by dispensing power amongst many different actors. Decentralization is condition sine qua non for democracy and democratic consolidation; in theory, it exists to strengthen private autonomy and political self-government while permitting a market-like process in political decision-making. The idea is that political decision making becomes more democratic, processes become more transparent and societal progress is achieved through civic freedom.
Just like democracies, however, decentralization can be messy and the cause for dysfunctional decision making and increased cost of control (in the form of monitoring to ensure that delegated decision-making authority is being used appropriately). That’s why for decentralization to work there needs to be something more – something that most technologies and, in particular, the Internet can point to for their existence. That something is collaboration.
History is replete with examples of decentralized collaborations that led to great things. In 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright developed the three-axis controls that made flying an airplane possible. In 1913, Albert Einstein published with Marcel Grossman a joint paper “Outline of a Generalized Theory of Relativity and a Theory of Gravitation”, which acted as the precursor to the final theory of relativity. When Paul McCartney and John Lennon started writing songs together for the Beatles, they could never imagine that their creative partnership would become the driving force behind the sound that would change popular music forever.
In all these examples, we still do not know who the leader was. And, therein lies the main attractiveness of decentralization: all this innovative and creative thinking happened in spite of a central authority; it happened because collaboration enabled a decentralized relationship which, in turn, enabled decentralization to take effect. In many ways, decentralization and collaboration complement each other in a seamless way. And, there is no better example to this than the Internet.
When it comes to the Internet, decentralization sits at its core. Early on, its small community of engineers realized the need for the Internet to depart from any design that resembled a government, the classic example of a top-down, centralized structure; and, to achieve this, it was important that any notion of “kings, presidents and voting” was rejected. This choice has proven key for the Internet’s past, present future. “We believe in rough consensus and running code” the engineering community would proclaim. And, the only road to consensus is through collaboration.
In his terrific book, “The Innovators,” Walter Isaacson, writes: “The Internet was built partly by the government and partly by private firms, but mostly it was the creation of a loosely knit cohort of academics and hackers who worked as peers and freely shared their creative ideas. The result of a such a peer sharing was a network that facilitated peer sharing. The Internet was built with the belief that power should be distributed rather than centralized and that any authoritarian diktats should be circumvented”.
In addition, beyond the cultural influences that shaped the Internet, the process that led to its creation is as significant. “The creation of a triangular relationship among government, industry and academia was, in its own way, one of the significant innovations that helped produce the technological revolution of the late twentieth century," wrote Isaacson. "The Defense Department and the National Science Foundation soon became the prime funders of much of America's basic research, spending as much as private industry during the 1950s through the 1980s. The return on that investment was huge, leading not only to the Internet but to many of the pillars of America's post-war innovation and economic boom."
As the Internet grew in size and use, however, so did its complexity. In the meantime, the appetite for collaboration was shrinking. In the beginning, there was collaboration if only to ensure a certain level of interoperation. The new applications that emerged brought new actors that had to collaborate in order for their systems to interoperate with the existing ones. But, as actors grew, so did their power, which became more concentrated. Suddenly, collaboration shifted from being a shared commitment between a variety of actors to a single act predominantly dictated by players with a significant market power. (manifestations of this include bigger players absorbing smaller ones or annihilating them). With so much concentrated power gathered in the hands of a few players, collaboration appeared to be less necessary or relevant.
When it came to governance questions, things looked more optimistic. The decentralized architecture of the Internet was mirrored in the multistakeholder model that was meant to serve the multiplicity and diversity of the Internet’s interested parties. In the beginning, this new structural arrangement brought a great deal of enthusiasm. Multistakeholder governance assumed that democracy would deepen by the extension of political representation at places like the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) and that democratic processes would be strengthened through enhanced political participation by a diverse set of stakeholders; it also assumed that benefits in socio-economic development would increase through governments and decision-makers and influencers being more responsive and more accountable to users’ needs and desires.
In many ways, the multistakeholder model hit those targets; but, it also missed a lot others. With no real guidance, lack of a unified purpose and absent a focused goal, there are not a lot of examples globally of truly collaborative processes that came out of the multistakeholder model to lead to something tangible and impactful (an exemption would perhaps be the IANA transition process – the only real and tangible success of a global multistakeholder process). Did multistakeholders miscalculate the potential for collective action? Overestimate the ability and willingness of people to participate? Assemble the wrong type of interested parties? Set untenable goals? Was it an issue of timing, wrong choice of terminology or simply bad luck? Or, is the vulnerability of the multistakeholder approach part of a larger design flaw that considered collaboration and collective action as default settings?
All these questions would most likely involve both a ‘yes’ and a ‘no’ answer. But, the last one in particular, merits a bit of more thinking. The hope was: allow people to participate and they will collaborate. But, that is a big assumption. The idea that people would creatively come together to deal with the Internet’s challenges is certainly appealing. But, how do you ensure that people actually collaborate? The answer lies in “four important characteristics of collaborative activities that have driven the success and innovation of the Internet to date”:
We rarely see this level of collaboration in the Internet any more. Instead we are noticing an increasing number of actors who are acting alone. Yet, no single entity can solve the problems that face the Internet. Because any single entity will eventually get distracted and self-serving.
I truly think that decentralization can provide many answers to the many questions we face in today’s Internet environment and it is important for the health of the Internet. But, do not believe that by simply calling for decentralization suddenly everything will fall into place – the market will get less consolidated and we will see fewer single points of failure in the way governments approach Internet policy issues. We must collaborate!
I explore all this in a TedX talk below.
We need to talk about Internet responsibility and we need to talk about it now. By “Internet responsibility”, I am not referring to some abstract subjective connotation of it, but rather to an attempt to identify objective criteria that could be used as a benchmark for determining responsibility. For the past 20 something years we all have been using the Internet in different ways and for different reasons; but, have we ever contemplated what our levels of responsibility are? Have we ever taken the time to consider how certain behaviors by certain agents affect the Internet? But, more importantly, do we even know what it is that we are responsible for?
Responsibility and technology seem to have a special relationship mainly due to technology’s pervasiveness role in societies. But, to understand what is so special about this relationship, we should first ask ourselves what it means to be responsible.
In everyday life situations, there is typically an individual confronted with an ethical choice. Although the choice at hand may be morally complex, we tend to think of the actions and what ethical concerns they may raise as well as what are the direct consequences of that action. And, in most cases, it is often the case that there is a degree of certainty on what these consequences may be. In this context, ethical literature operates under three assumptions: (1) it is individuals who perform an act; (2) there is a direct causal link between their actions and the consequences that follow; and, (3) these consequences are most of the times a certainty. None of these assumptions, however, apply when trying to rationalize the nexus between responsibility and technology.
First, technology is a product of a highly collaborative process, which involves multiple agents. Second, developing technology is also a complex process, which is driven by the actions made by technologists and the eventual impact of such actions. And, third, it is very difficult to predict in advance the consequences or the social impact of technology.
But, there is yet another reason why responsibility plays such an important role in technology. Technology informs the way we, as human beings, go about living our lives. An example of this informative role is the correlation between the Internet and fake news. Who is, for instance, responsible if the news spread in the Internet are predominantly fake? Does it make sense, in such situations, to attribute responsibility to technology or is it possible to understand these complex situations so that, in the end, all responsibility can be attributed to human action? More interestingly, what – if any – is the responsibility of the actors running the platforms where fake news get disseminated? It may be argued that these platforms produce the algorithms that sustain and support an environment of fake news. And, ultimately, what is the impact of such actions to the Internet itself?
These are hard questions that invite some even harder answers and I am not alone in thinking of them. For the past few months, the press has been replete with articles on the impact the Internet has on societies and there is compelling data, which accurately points to the fact that, in 2018, our online interactions have changed dramatically compared to just 2 years ago.
Most of these stories, however, fall short on two counts: first, some of them at least, take the mistaken, yet predictable, route of placing the blame on the Internet itself – its decentralized architecture and design. But, as many of us have asserted, these stories lack an understanding of what decentralization means for the Internet. Secondly, these stories also use the current division on pro and against technology to sensationalize their points of view. But, as Cory Doctorow, argues: “This is a false binary: you don’t have to be “pro-tech” or “anti-tech.” Indeed, it’s hard to imagine how someone could realistically be said to be “anti-tech” – your future is going to have more technology in it, so the question isn’t, “Should we use technology?” but rather, “Which technology should we use?”
The answer to this question must be – at least in part: we should use “the technology that is responsible towards technology itself”. In other words, any technology that uses the Internet as its foundation should be responsible towards the Internet itself.
In other words, what are the characteristics of the Internet that make it unique, that allow others to build, create and innovate? And, once we know these characteristics, do we understand them well-enough to make sure we are responsible to preserving them?
Only a few know of these features and they are mainly engineers and Internet geeks. For most people the Internet appears as an awesome tool but, what is the source of this awesomeness is, is widely unknown. Why is it important that we know the source? Because we will appreciate the Internet better but also because it can provide us with the necessarily legitimacy to call out actors and their actions. Ultimately, it can help us answer the question “which technology we should use”.
The truth is that these characteristics remain mainly unknown because of two reasons: first, they have been baptized “invariants”, which is a very awkward and pretty incomprehensible to most people; secondly and more seriously, even by those who know or are supposed to know about them, they are either taken for granted or ignored.
In order to help you understand these ‘invariants’ and their importance, think of the oaths of knighthood. They were about honor, loyalty and faith. But, that’s not only why they were important. They were particularly important because they were an expression of such sincerity that it was backed up by the sense of responsibility towards a common goal.
Similarly, the ‘invariants’ of the Internet – the oaths we all should be striving to uphold – are the expression of the sincerity of choices made in the early days of the Internet’s development by the Internet engineers. And, they are:
These should be oaths that everyone connecting and connected to the Internet should swear to. Understand these features and you can start to get a sense of what responsibility towards the Internet means.
Now, I will let you start thinking how many of the current actors have sworn and upheld the oaths of the Internet.
It is pretty simple: if we want an open Internet, we need to celebrate and support its decentralization.
When I was young, my friends and I, had formed a secret group called “The Five Hounds”, inspired by Enid Blyton’s book series The Secret Seven. The group’s main purpose was to identify and solve school mysteries – who had written bad words on the board, where the attendance sheet had gone or who had scratched the Math teacher’s car. During school hours, we would gather evidence and then meet after school to exchange notes. Our meeting places included abandoned buildings, buildings under construction, the playground. Often times we would exchange notes even during class, which would get us into much trouble. We were all consumed by our mission. We were all equally committed.
Of course, we would end up solving none of the mysteries we had taken on. Actually, we were pretty awful at finding clues. But, what was cool about all this was the group and how it worked. The group had no assigned leader and had no hierarchical structure. We were all responsible for our own actions and we all had the same liberty to make the choices we made. We operated on the basis of openness and were driven by what was good for the group. Most importantly, we were all accountable to each other for any success or failure. And, trust me, there were a lot of failures.
This was my first encounter with the idea of decentralization. (Of course, back then, I could not even spell the word). This idea of the dispensation of power and responsibility and the ability for everyone to be their own self within the collective. This feeling that we were all equals and there was no one that we had to ask permission from. For me and my friends, decentralization meant the willingness of the group to be open to new ideas, suggestions and direction.
Decentralization has been applied to different disciplines from political science to group dynamics and project management. Its meaning varies. But, whatever meaning one attaches to it, it should not be one that views decentralization as a free-ride system of anarchy or lack of responsibility.
This is the major flaw in Niall Ferguson’s essay “In Praise of Hierarchy” for the Wall Street Journal. In his piece, he questions the idea of decentralization as a future course for the Internet, blaming it for its current challenges – fake news, propaganda, online extremism or the rise of big tech. He points the finger to the Internet’s decentralized nature, asking whether “we perhaps overestimate what can be achieved by ungoverned networks—and underestimate the perils of a world without any legitimate hierarchical structure”. But, he completely misses the point of what decentralization means in the context of the Internet.
Let’s start, by what it doesn’t mean. It does not mean the lack of governance. And, it certainly does not mean that those who are responsible should not be held accountable. Internet decentralization is not meant to protect the powerful at the expense of the weaker. It is not about creating permanent favorites.
On the contrary, it is about the invariants of the Internet – the characteristics that make the Internet what it is. It is ultimately about openness. It is about interoperability, accessibility, collaboration and global reach. All these characteristics exist because of decentralization and they are very-well elucidated by Leslie Daigle in her piece “On the Nature of the Internet”. They are important because, as Daigle argues, “by understanding the Internet — primarily in terms of its key properties for success, which have been unchanged since its inception — policy makers will be empowered to make thoughtful choices in response to the pressures outlined here, as well as new matters arising.”
So, decentralization enables the existence of these unique features, which, in turn, ensure an open and free Internet. In this context, decentralization is not an end in and of itself – it is a means towards reaching that end. And, that end, is openness. It is pretty simple: if we want an open Internet, we need to celebrate and support its decentralization.
For the Internet, hierarchy will not work. Imagine asking for permission every time someone has an idea that wants to connect to the network? Imagine governments – the principals of hierarchy – being the only ones making the based purely on their national interests. Or, imagine a system that only supports the strong and creates permanent favorites without accountability. All these things are things hierarchy feeds from.
This does not mean that we should give decentralization absolution. Because, its success is only ensured if there is accountability and transparency. When we talk about anyone being able to operate within a decentralized structure, it should not mean that anyone can do what they want without being accountable or transparent. We are all equally responsible for the decisions we take and for the course of our actions. We should make sure that no one uses the unique features of the Internet only for their benefit and not for the benefit of all, including for the Internet itself. When we feel that some lack accountability we should call them out. We should certainly get better at that. But, whatever we do, we should never prefer hierarchs to visionaries.
I don’t know about you, but I am angry. I am angry with the state of the world and our incapacity to do something about it. I am angrier because, in all this, I thought that the Internet would be the place where we would see collective action at its best. But, that’s not going to happen. At least, any time soon.
Is it time to admit that the Internet has turned toxic?
No. But, it is time to ask ourselves the question: is the Internet today the one we subscribed to originally? (This place of openness, freedom, innovation and creativity – a value proposition of democracy)
When I heard earlier this month that, during the US Presidential elections, as many as 126 million people were lied to, misinformed and subjected to propaganda, I got angry. Is this the Internet I want to be part of? Of course not! And, I am pretty sure it’s not the Internet that these 126 million people want to be part of. But, I also realized that we are equally responsible for the current state of how we understand the Internet.
Let’s start with the fact that we chose convenience over human values. Over the past years, our ability to debate and, even hold an opinion, seems to be getting out of our hands. And, it is getting progressively worse. Social media platforms and Internet intermediaries make decisions daily on our behalf on what we should agree or disagree with. The proliferation of propaganda has chipped away our right to question the facts. Companies, with focus unrelated to content infrastructure, remove controversial domain name sites and they prevent us from engaging in an intellectual argument about extremism. In a glimpse of a second, private companies can silence the conversation. And, we accept this.
There is nothing new or shocking about this. According to Jürgen Habermas, the role social media platforms can play in democracies can be less than conspicuous. Notwithstanding their ability to destabilize authoritarian regimes, they can also wear away the public sphere of democracies. And, there are examples of social media platforms undemocratically silencing different conversations.
Although the idea of private companies determining issues like speech had always many concerned, the user sentiment was that they represented basic democratic values. It was, after all, Facebook that was celebrated for its contribution during the Arab Spring; it was Twitter that stood up to Turkey’s pressures on censorship a few years ago; and, it was Google that ceased censoring its Chinese search engine, costing its exile from China.
All these acts were applauded for how these private actors represented the liberal ideals of democracy; how they advocated for everyone to express themselves and be part of this global conversation. It was fascinating. And, for many years, our faith on them seemed to be having great results. We felt safe that these companies were protecting and were standing up for our beliefs. We idolized them and, because of that, we also became complacent and we stopped paying attention.
It is not that big Internet companies lied to us or suddenly stopped supporting liberal ideals. In the end, profit took precedent. Speech got into the second priority lane. Information became diluted.
In such cases normally, the government would intervene to ensure that fundamental rights are appropriately and freely applied. But, just like us, governments are also guilty of becoming complacent. For many different issues and for years, governments have been outsourcing a lot of the decisions to the private sector. And, that is not good enough. That is fundamentally not good enough.
So, for many years, private Internet companies were loose. They grew both in size and in the services they offered to users. And, as they did that, they became more powerful and more untouchable.
But, then something changed. A lot of things changed actually. The world was exposed to a seismic geopolitical shift, where old power structures either collapsed or got refocused. The news cycle was too fast to shift from Brexit, to the US Presidential elections, the rise of far-right groups across the world, international security and secessionist trends. In all these trends, the Internet was front and center. It may not have caused any of them but it had become the place where each and every one of them would get exaggerated. Suddenly, our heroes were the villains.
Are then governments the good guys now?
Yes and no. We should all be very concerned with what has happened last year in the United States. Governments should also be very concerned and they seem willing to tackle this. But, so far, they appear to go for patches instead of a real fix. And, they go alone. Germany recently passed legislation that demands the removal of hate speech within 24 hours. France, Italy and Germany are eager to have social media platforms remove objectionable content within 2 hours of it appearing. And, in the US, questions over whether social media ads should be regulated like TV commercials have started emerging. In the meantime, private Internet companies are looking for ways to respond to this regulatory pressure either by hiring an increased amount of staff to monitor violent content or by collaborating to find ways to fight extremism.
Neither of these approaches can work. Government regulation will not fix the problem – it will exacerbate it. Regulation will stop innovation and will create an environment where private Internet companies will over-censor in their attempt to avoid hefty fines or bad reputation. On the other hand, continuing to allow social media platforms to create their own rules uninhibited only gives them more power to ‘behave’ as independent state-actors.
What’s the way forward? Transparency is our only currency. We should go back to the whole idea of figuring out how to hold private Internet companies accountable. Governments should join in this effort not through regulation but through a more loose normative structure.
In the wake of the financial crisis, governments started demanding greater corporate accountability. This led to the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), a global standard for good governance of oil, gas and mineral sources, run by a multistakeholder Board of governments, extractive companies, civil society, financial institutions and international organizations.
Are we experiencing a democracy crisis analogous to the financial one? Most probably not yet. But, we are headed there the Internet is accelerating this process. Our only currency is transparency.
G20 Avoids Encryption; Talks Rule of law; and, Extends a Hand of Collaboration to Internet Technology Firms
This past weekend, the leaders of the G20 group concluded their discussions in Hamburg in what it has been declared "a solid success". This success, however, relates more to the fact that the G20 managed to publish a joint G20 communique rather than to its substance. Although there was some strong indication on the need to move forward on key security issues of countering terrorism, the threat posed by North Korea's nuclear program and commitments on rising economic growth, financial regulation and architecture, tax cooperation and skills literacy, it was the lack of credible action on climate change, migration and liberalization of trade that will mark this year's summit.
But, what about the Internet provisions?
The Internet provisions do not appear to go as far as one would have expected and the G20 group has, instead, opted for some vague and opaque language, indicating that there is more work to be done between now and next year's G20 meeting in Argentina.
The G20 communique recognizes "that information and communication technology (ICT) plays a crucial role in modernizing and increasing efficiency in public administration." It talks about the need to "bridge the digital divide" and to "ensure that all our citizens are digitally connected by 2025" and "promote digital literacy and digital skills". In line with the G7 action plan, the G20 leaders committed "to foster favourable conditions for the development of the digital economy and [...] to promote effective cooperation of all stakeholders and encourage the development and use of market- and industry-led international standards for digitised production, products and services that are based on the principles of openness, transparency and consensus and standards should not act as barriers to trade, competition or innovation."
Interestingly, there was also commitment to support the work of the WTO on e-commerce, which will be interesting to observe considering the strong objections of this work coming from the African group within the WTO.
As expected, terrorism occupied much of the G20 discussions. It is only on that statement that we see the term "Internet' being used: "We will work with the private sector, in particular communication service providers and administrators of relevant applications, to fight exploitation of the internet and social media for terrorist purposes such as propaganda, funding and planning of terrorists acts, inciting terrorism, radicalizing and recruiting to commit acts of terrorism, while fully respecting human rights". This is not a surprise.
There is an increase governmental awareness and concern about the use of the Internet and social platforms to radicalize and recruit terrorist. France and the United Kingdom have already been on the record as wishing to create legal requirements for technology companies to aid the fight against terrorism online. Germany is also toying with the idea of imposing hefty fines on social networking sites failing to remove hate speech.
Despite some early indications coming from individual countries about the need to address the challenge of encryption, both the G20 communique and the Statement on Terrorism, avoid use of the word. This is good as the debate can continue to be addressed through more inclusive frameworks with the collaboration of all interested parties -- technologists, security experts, governments, law enforcement and the users. However, there is some language that could be interpreted loosely regarding "lawful and non-arbitrary access to available information".
The Rule of Law
The G20 Hamburg Statement on Countering Terrorism ends with a strong message: " We affirm that the rule of law applies online as well as offline". This means two things. The obvious first one is that existing traditional regulation will apply online. This could be problematic. If the past twenty-five years are of any indication, applying regulation that was created before the Internet to address issues as they emerge on the Internet can be problematic and counterproductive. It can affect innovation, economic growth and scale back the Internet' s development.
The second thing is that the judiciary will have a stronger role to play. Courts will need to interpret how the rule of law can apply both offline and online. This is good. If there is still one institutional arrangement that is independent enough to resist the political forces of populism, protectionism or uphold human rights and civil liberties is the judiciary. Courts will have a bigger role to play and, thus, their potential impact on the future growth of the Internet will be greater.
All in all, the G20 communique is a solid declaration towards a more collaborative and sustainable approach to address terrorism and the digital economy. It does not include anything that should automatically ring any alarm bells, but it should be seen by everyone as an invitation to collaborate towards finding solutions to some of the Internet's 'wicked problems'.
The Internet is full of ‘wicked problems’ and the latest cyberattack – the WannaCry ransomware – is no different. WannaCry has so far infected more than 200,000 computers in 150 countries, with the software demanding ransom payments in Bitcoin in 28 languages.
In a sense, WannaCry could be characterized as a ‘wicked problem’: so far, we have incomplete knowledge about the exact parameters of the attack and there is great uncertainty regarding the number of people actually involved. At the same time, Microsoft and the institutions hit by the attack have all suffered a large economic burden, while the interconnected nature of the attack has created significant problems and has had a spill over effect on the operation of various services, including, most notably, hospitals, transportation and telecommunication providers. Notwithstanding these features though, this specific cyberattack is not your typical ‘wicked problem’. Although it will be hard to fully solve, we will still be able to solve it in the end. This makes it less of a “wicked problem” and more of just another security problem. What is important though is what this attack tells us: the real “wicked problems” of the Internet is currently security (in a more general sense).
Discussions about Internet security have consistently been rampant though more lately. Most such discussions, however, focus more on the policy agendas of nation states than the concept of Internet security itself. Often, this takes the form of giving high priority and equating security with issues like human rights, economics, social injustice and the threat of using the Internet to carry out military threats. Such thinking is usually buttressed with a combination of normative arguments about which values of which people should be protected, and empirical arguments as to the nature and magnitude of threats to those values.
In our effort to understand – and, thus, attempt to resolve – security questions in the Internet, we face a significant limitation: we may know we have an overall security problem but we continue to fail to fully understand its scope, parameters and dimensions. And, with no definitive problem, getting a definitive solution becomes somewhat an impossible task.
To this end, in order to understand the Internet security conundrum, we need to understand the complexity in approaching ‘wicked problems’. Academic Tim Curtis says that a “wicked problem” is one in which “the various stakeholders can barely agree on what the definition of the problem should be, let alone what the solution is”. Sounds familiar? In addressing security questions on the Internet, the different stakeholders are normally in full disagreement of the exact problem: governments tend to approach security as a national policy issue; businesses see it as purely economic; for the technical community it is usually a question about the reliability and resiliency of the network; and, civil society sees the whole issue under human rights considerations.
This inability for agreement between affected and interested parties feeds into the mistaken perception that the security issue is somewhat broken. And, this creates the danger of security as a “wicked problems” to exist in perpetuity. As Curtis accurately argues: “Problems are intrinsically wicked or messy, and it is very dangerous for them to be treated as if they were ‘tame’ or ‘benign’. Real world problems have no definitive formulation; no point at which it is definitely solved; solutions are not true or false; there is no test for a solution; every solution contributes to a further social problem; there are no well-defined set of solutions; wicked problems are unique; they are symptomatic of other problems; they do not have simple causes; and have numerous possible explanations which in turn frame different policy responses; and, in particular, the social enterprise is not allowed to fail in their attempts to solve wicked problems.”
Perhaps you are beginning to see what I mean. The crux is what is preventing us from finding solutions to the security challenges – whether they relate to ransomware attacks, attacks on national security or attacks directly against the network.
So, we need to find a middle ground that will allow solutions for such ‘wicked problems’ to emerge. And, this middle ground is collaboration.
Lately, I have been thinking quite a lot about collaboration – the value it adds, the importance it carries and its ability to solve ‘wicked problems’. Along with Leslie Daigle and Phil Roberts, we have deliberated how collaboration can contribute towards providing a robust framework where solutions can emerge and answers can be found. So, we came up with the following features that can make collaboration work.
Whether this understanding of collaboration can solve all security problems, I do not know. What I know though is that it is a pretty good starting point. In fact, it is the only starting point. Governments need to disclose system security vulnerabilities as they discover them, businesses and the technical community must race to address them and users must demand that this is the case. This will only happen though if different actors talk to each other.
Note: Extracts taken from: Tim Curtis's essay The challenge and risks of innovation in social enterprises in Robert Gunn and Christopher Durkin's book Social Entrepreneurship: A skills approach.
Konstantinos Komaitis, the individual!
Views are my own and my own only!