August 8, 2004

My talk at the PFIR Internet Meltdown Conference

Here's my notes from my presentation at the PFIR Internet Meltdown conference.

I didn't really give this particular talk; my laptop shut itself down (perhaps as an an editorial protest?) so I ended up winging it.  But this is what I would have said if the gods and goddesses of batteries been more agreeable.

Internet Governance: Something Important Is Missing

Internet Governance is a young art and we ought to expect it to have some problems.

However, Internet Governance seems to be a classic case of Satyandra's rule that those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it.

(My corollary: If you had a great time doing something then you should forget that it happened.)

As it has been practiced so far internet governance is missing some necessary elements:

  • A firm grasp of reality.
  • A framework of principles and procedures.
  • A foundation based on institutions rather than individual people.
  • A viable system of accountability to the entire community of internet users.
  • Civility

Let's take a look at some of these elements.

Internet Mythology

Let me first mention internet mythology:  The internet does have a mythology.

Here are a few examples of some often repeated internet myths:

  • "The Internet will route around it"
    (The same things was said about the world's seas until Alfred Mahan came along.)
  • ICANN engages in technical coordination.
  • Those who practice technology are more pure, virtuous, and wise than other people.
    (OK, is perhaps more of a perception than a myth, but no matter what we call it, it is something that has led to many of the problems we have encountered with internet governance. I'll come back to that in a bit.)

More important than the myths is that those who ought to be questioning these myths are not doing so.

The Myth That ICANN As Doing Technical Coordination

ICANN has relinquished control over nearly all technical knobs and levers.

We have been lucky that the real technical control is in the hands of some exceptional individuals.

ICANN has instead engaged on matters of economic, business, and social regulation that have no link to technical matters.

ICANN exercises powers of a sovereign.

Accountability of ICANN is virtually non-existent.

The Myth of Technology as Pure, Virtuous, and Wise

After WW-I technology was seen as an alternative to the kinds of political manipulations that gave rise to the Great War.

One of the best examples is the 1936 film "Things To Come", written by H.G. Wells.

The film glorifies technology and those who practice it as pure, virtuous, and wise. Those who practice "the old ways" are portrayed as inept and as the source of social ills.

What came with war dissolved in war - WW-II, Hiroshima, and the cold war that followed tarnished the glamour.

But the image of the disinterested scientist as statesman has not completely died and has, in fact, had a rebirth at least with regard to the science of the internet.

Today's bodies of internet governance have benefited and have been given a great deal of leeway, so far, because of this myth.

Internet myths are swallowed without a murmur by national governments (especially the US), international bodies, the press, and the public.

Internet governance will remain a sham until the myths are examined and replaced with facts and knowledge.

In addition, well-funded and determined business groups will find it easy to manipulate bodies of internet governance as long as the myths obtain.

(Discuss the Hush-a-Phone case.)

Regaining Our Grasp On Reality

How do we, and those who which to establish bodies of internet governance, look Internet mythology and see reality?

I do not know the answer to this question, but I submit that the first step is to recognize that there is such a mythology.

My experience with the ITU and UN, a rather limited experience so far, has led me to believe that another antidote to mythology is to improve the dialog between the technical and non-technical communities.

Frameworks of Principles and Procedures

Let me come to what I believe is the most important element that is missing from today's bodies of internet governance: the lack of frameworks of principles and procedures.

Innovation and a sense of justice can exist only if decisions are not merely fair when viewed alone but are also consistent and reasonably predictable when viewed together.

Let me suggest one such principle, something I call the First Law of the Internet:

First Law of the Internet

Every person shall be free to use the Internet in any way that is privately beneficial without being publicly detrimental.

The burden of demonstrating public detriment shall be on those who wish to prevent the private use.

Such a demonstration shall require clear and convincing evidence of public detriment.

The public detriment must be of such degree and extent as to justify the suppression of the private activity.

Institutions vs. Individual People

Stable systems of governance are constructed on institutions.

Individuals make poor long-term foundations

For example, the reign of Napoleon lasted about 15 years while the US Constitution is now 216 years old.

To me one of the more important reasons for preferring institutions over people is that I believe that it is very important to constrain bodies of internet governance.

It is emotionally easier to try to limit the powers of an institution than of an individual.

We tend to be more suspicious of institutions and more willing to forgive or overlook the flaws of an individual.

So What Do We Do?

So, how do we bring substance to these things I've been talking about?

Here's the roadmap as I see it:

  • Define basic principles of internet governance.
  • Create crystal clear descriptions of those aspects of the internet that need technical regulation.
  • Create bodies precisely tailored to those needs.
  • Each body should be obligated to be open, transparent, and accountable.
  • Legal means must be available for anyone to compel adherence.
  • This could mean that ICANN is left with nothing to do.
    • Most of ICANN's work belongs in the hands of national legislatures anyway.
Posted by karl at August 8, 2004 4:36 PM