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.
Photo: Flickr, "Opportunity Knocks" by The Shifted Librarian
On Friday, September 30, 2016 - at the stroke of midnight - the IANA functions contract between the US government and ICANN ended quietly. This marked the end of an era, full of political struggles concerning the role of the US government over the Domain Name System (DNS). It also marked the beginning of a new one, full of opportunities and hope.
The termination of oversight over the IANA functions is more symbolic than anything. On October 1st, the US government did not turn off any Internet switch nor did it pass the keys of the Internet to ICANN. The US government was never holding such power to begin with. In a nutshell, what took place with the decision of the NTIA to allow the IANA contract to expire was the validation of the multistakeholder model of Internet governance.
Historically, the multistakeholder model – the collaborative approach to dealing with Internet (policy and technical) issues – has not had an easy ride. Its efficiency and legitimacy to provide tangible and implementable policy recommendations has been questioned and it has often been characterized as an unworkable approach. Ever since it emerged during the second phase of the World Summit on Information Society (WSIS) in Tunis in 2005, multi stakeholder governance has been criticized for its lack of focus and for failing to identify the roles and responsibilities of its participating actors, especially governments. But, multistakeholderism has persisted and it seems that it now has scored its first big win.
But, let’s be fair, multistakeholderism is a very awkward term. It is an invention that not everyone can easily relate to; it is so open-ended that it has been taken to mean a bunch of different things to a bunch of different people and institutions. But, if we forget the term for a minute, this invention is what has allowed non-state actors to be active participants in discussions that directly affect them. It has allowed collaboration to be front and center in preserving the Internet, addressing its challenges and finally being able to ensure its constant growth. Multistakeholderism is about collaboration and this is how we should view it.
It is this collaborative model that has allowed us to address the various challenges over the past years, including the IANA transition. And, it is this collaboration that must carry us in the future. The successful transition of the IANA functions provides us with a solid framework to do so.
So, where should we see its impact?
The immediate impact should be seen in the debate over "enhanced cooperation", which was originally part of a compromise on the future of the Internet at the WSIS in 2005. At the time, agreement could not be reached over the governance of critical Internet resources, including the DNS. Enhanced cooperation was seen as the focal point where stakeholders would collaborate towards a more participatory governance structure. And, for years now, the Commission on Science and Technology for Development (CSTD) has been trapped in a never-ending argument that consistently seemed to circle back to the unresolved issue of the US government’s role over the DNS. With IANA out of the way, this argument is no longer persistent. This provides the CSTD and its participating actors with a unique opportunity to advance their thinking. The CSTD working group has the opportunity to find a new identity and make a whole new contribution to Internet governance. Rejuvenating the discussions at the CSTD level could help rejuvenate the discussions also in other fora, UN and non-UN.
More fundamentally, however, the impact of the IANA experience should be be visible in the years to come and as we seek to find solutions to complex questions. One of the key takeaways of this this two-year plus process is the tools that we now have at our disposal -- tools that were always there but right now should be visible to all of us.
These are some of the obvious impressions the IANA transition process has to offer; of course, there are more. In moving forward, we should celebrate this important milestone the community has reached. But, we should also cease this opportunity to continue building a governance framework that allows people to come together and collaborate for a more inclusive Internet.
Has Netflix made its first mistake yet by betraying its growing network of loyal customers?
In a statement, titled “Evolving Proxy Detection as a Global Service”, Netflix Vice President David Fullagar said that he wants to prevent its subscribers from using Internet proxies or hide behind Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) to access content outside their own countries.
“[…] in coming weeks, those using proxies and unblockers will only be able to access the service in the country where they currently are. We are confident this change won’t impact members not using proxies.”
We can only make assumptions as to why Netflix has decided to do this. What is certain though is that, for many, this move will definitely change the perception they have on Netflix. A perception of a new business model that not only has depended on the Internet as a new business model, but has also respected its ability to offer users a variety of options.
We need to acknowledge of course that Netflix has not had an easy ride. It is somewhat a common secret that Netflix has faced a big challenge to license or keep licensed content for its users. As the company grew, so did the costs associated with licensing content.
In 2011, analysts estimated that Netflix spent $700 million for content licensing, which was expected to go up to $1.2 billion in 2012. This is a lot of money. No, wonder Netflix has consistently over the past few years tried to rely less and less on the content of others and has focused on creating its own original one. Shows like the House of Cards or Orange is the New Black have been hugely successful for the streaming giant and have even been part of the awards glitz and glam, but are still not enough to keep Netflix in the content competitive race.
And, in August of last year, Netflix’s deal with Epix – the distributor of Hollywood blockbuster like the “Hunger Games” and Transformers ended, which automatically made the company’s share tumble for a little while.
So, the hard truth is that Netflix needs Hollywood more than Hollywood needs Netflix. But, what Netflix needs even more than Hollywood is the trust of its customers. And, their latest move seems to be turning its customers away from the company in a time when Netflix needs them most. As the company prepares for a huge expansion in more than 130 countries, one cannot help but wonder whether the streaming giant will appeal to users in countries with a confined catalogue.
As soon as news that Netflix would ban users from using VPNs, the Twitter-sphere want on fire. Here is a selection:
In the Internet, trust is as important as water is to human life. Unless users are able to trust the provider, the services and their delivery, then they look for something else. In this sense, trustworthiness and trustability walk hand-in hand. In a Harvard Business Law Review article examining “Trust in the Age of Transparency”, the authors make it clear that “[for a company to succeed] beyond trustworthiness, you must achieve “trustability.” It’s a more proactive stance that has you not just keeping up your end of a bargain but ensuring that the bargain is the best one from the customers’ point of view […]”. Not allowing users innovative ways, like using Internet proxies, to access your content is certainly not what is best for Netflix’s customer base.
Netflix appears as if it is turning its back to its users. But, to what end? Netflix could easily use the fact that users opt for VPN to demonstrate that the current licensing regime is simply not working. It could use this data to demonstrate that in a global place like the Internet, we need to work towards identifying a more efficient, cost-effective and reliable way to license content. Instead, it opted for the ‘easy’ solution.
We will just have to wait and see whether in the end Netflix will lose customers. But, notwithstanding this, Neflix will never be for its users what it was when it started.
We live in a world of information abundance and the proliferation of ideas. Through mobile devices, tablets, laptops and computers we can access and create any sort of data in a ubiquitous way. But, it was not always like that. Before the Internet information was limited and was travelling slow. Our ancestors depended on channels of information that were often subjected to various policy and regulatory restrictions.
The Internet changed all that. Suddenly everything became possible; everyone had the same opportunities to become a creator or publisher of ideas or a distributor of information. The Internet connected people and their ideas; it has contributed to social empowerment and economic growth. But, have we ever stood long enough to consider what makes the Internet such a special invention? What is it that makes the Internet such a multifaceted tool that never ceases to amaze us with its potential?
In a nutshell - it is “permissionless innovation”.
Vint Cerf, one of the fathers of the Internet who originally coined the term, has argued that permissionless innovation is responsible for the economic benefits of the Internet. Based on open standards, the Internet gives the opportunity to entrepreneurs, creators and inventors to try new business models without asking permission.
But, permissionless innovation is even more than that. It is about experimentation and exploration of the limits of human imagination. It is about allowing people to think, to create, to build, to construct, to structure and to assemble any idea, thought or theory and turn it into the new Google, Facebook, Spotify or Netflix. As Adam Thierer says in his book “Permissionless Innovation: The Continuing Case for Technological Freedom”:
“Permissionless innovation is about the creativity of the human mind to run wild in its inherent curiosity and inventiveness. In a word, permissionless innovation is about freedom.”
Freedom, not anarchy. Leslie Diagle eloquently places the freedom aspect of permissionless innovation into context in her blog post: “Permissionless innovation: openness, not anarchy”:
Permissionless innovation" is not about fomenting disruption outside the bounds of appropriate behaviour; "permissionless" is a guideline for fostering innovation by removing barriers to entry.
This makes permissionless innovation is an inseparable part of the Internet. Standards organizations that have witnessed the benefits of permissionless innovation refer to it as “the ability of others to create new things on top of the existing communications structures. Ultimately, all entities are working toward the same goal and developments by one party can aid in the creation of another.”
Of course, all this freedom should not be seen isolated from our societal structures. It is freedom that operates within certain boundaries of behavior that trial test the manifestations of permissionless innovation. These boundaries can be normative or the rule of law. But, they kick in after the creator has created and after the inventor has invented in a permission-free environment. And, so they should. Permissionless innovation is not a sign of disorder; it indicates structured order.
Imagine a world without Facebook or YouTube. Imagine a world where your creations can be subject to authorization by third parties. Imagine a world where the end result of your product is only part of what you have imagined.
Imagine a world where ultimately certain uses of the Internet are prohibited. But, not so long ago, use of the Internet was prohibited. The 1982 MIT handbook for the use of ARPAnet – the precursor of the Internet, instructed the students:
“ It is considered illegal to use the ARPAnet for anything which is not in direct support of government business… Sending electronic mail over the ARPAnet for commercial profit or political purposes is both anti-social and illegal. By sending such messages, you can offend people, and it is possible to get MIT in serious trouble with the government agencies which manage the ARPAnet.”
Now, instead of “government business” imagine “ANY business”.
Permissionless innovation is key to the Internet’s continued development. We should preserve it and not question it.
The role of the US government in the administration of the Domain Name System (DNS) dates as far back as in 1998. At the time, various academics, myself included, questioned the role the United States government, through its National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), was exercising on the DNS. Questions regarding ICANN’s independence dominated much of the discussions also at WSIS and, in particular, at the first Internet Governance Forum (IGF). It was all everyone was talking about.
As Internet governance discussions evolved and matured, so did these questions. The Internet community was still asking but, at the same time, it was engaging in more thorough and considered discussions regarding the critical role the United States was exercising. That role was consistent, predictable and made the Internet run smoothly. The Internet was secure, stable and resilient. It was being established that, especially absent any viable alternative at the time, the US government was doing a very good job. But, questions persisted.
That is until 14 March 2014, when the US government, reacting to years of discussion, released a statement, declaring its intention “to transition key Internet domain name functions to the global multistakeholder community”. And, with this sentence, the United States government demonstrated to the entire world that, given the right process and the right ingredients, it is willing to terminate its stewardship role over this part of the Internet’s infrastructure.
For many this was long overdue. Under the 1997 Green Paper proposal on the “Improvement of Technical Management of Internet Names and Addresses”, “the US Government would gradually transfer [specific DNS functions] to [ICANN …], with the goal of having [ICANN] carry out operational responsibility by October 1998. Under the Green Paper proposal, the US government would continue to participate in policy oversight until such time as [ICANN] was established and stable, phasing out as soon as possible, but in no event later than September 2000”. Evidently, this deadline was never met. The 1998 MoU between the US government and ICANN was extended and then further extended and then re-extended (under a different name – the Joint Project Agreement or JPA), until it took the form of the Affirmation of Commitments in 2009.
Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information Lawrence E. Strickling, stated that “the timing is right to start the transition process”, explaining the ‘why now” question and inviting the Internet community to find a workable framework for the evolution of the IANA functions. As parties engage in this process, the US government is requesting that a set of conditions are met. These conditions illustrate a vision of an Internet that continues to thrive as a tool for innovation and creativity, is secure and as inclusive as possible. They should not be underestimated or taken for granted.
The first concerns multistakeholderism. By entrusting the multistakeholder model to create a functioning process for that would replace its stewardship role, the US government is demonstrating its integrity and belief to multistakeholder governance. This is quite remarkable. The various stakeholders have now a window of opportunity to engage in substantive discussions and find ways to work alongside through a bottom-up, inclusive, transparent and accountable process.
Caution and patience is required; failure of the stakeholders to demonstrate their capacity to build and adhere to a robust process can provide the ammunition to the critics of the model and jeopardize years of discussions. Its spillover effect will be impactful and could extent to the Internet itself. As multistakeholderism becomes more ingrained into the operational aspects of the Internet, it now becomes even more significant to get this right.
Naturally, this multistakeholder model will have to evolve and continue to demonstrate its flexibility; it will need to involve everyone and especially those materially-affected parties that are directly related to the various aspects of the Internet’s addressing and naming system.
Materially-affected parties become key actors in this process because of their ability to maintain the security, stability and resiliency of the Internet. Their experience in the day-to-day management of protocol parameters, IP numbers and names should be utilized to the full possible extent. They understand and they know what a secure and resilient Internet looks like. They are the trusted parties that have ensured a stable Internet for all these years; they have been majorly accountable. They, too, will have to go through their own re-evaluation and re-thinking; but, they are able to provide answers to emerging questions. As we heard in Singapore, what stable, secure and resilient mean will have to be rethought and clearly explained. What are the tools? Are there pre-existing mechanisms that ensure this? Are there specific principles that need to be applied?
Reaching a common and shared understanding to such questions becomes critical. The first step is for them to be addressed in any forum supporting multistakeholder participation. Singapore was the beginning. As they continue to be addressed, new, of course, will emerge. Questions on accountability will be key for this to work. But, it is too early to come up with a conclusive solution. What is required now is continuing the dialogue through a collaborative process.
The way I see it (and the NTIA statement instructs) all this work is to ensure the openness of the Internet – openness that has contributed to economic growth, has facilitated the exchange of knowledge, has introduced different ways of social interaction, has empowered people, has addressed issues of poverty and illiteracy and has connected billions of us together. The IANA functions play a critical part in what it means to have an open Internet.
Let’s get to work and get this right!
Views are my own and my own only!