September 17, 2004

Thoughts for Next Week's UN WGIG Meeting

Next week will be a meeting of the Working Group on Internet Governance in Geneva.  Unfortunately competing demands on my time prevent me from attending.  (I do spend much of my time building real, running networking products.)

There are not a lot of submissions as of this time, so I thought that I'd put forth a few thoughts.

The concept of sovereignty of nations is changing - power is eroding from existing nation-states and flowing into the hands of other actors.  This is an historical change and demands the articulation and examination of first principles.

Small thinking will lead to small results.  Internet governance wrought only in terms of intellectual property protection or in terms of local economic interests will fail in a few years time leaving us in a no better, and probably worse, position than we are in today.

The question that must be answered is raw and blunt: How is the power to control the internet to be subordinated to the common good?  This question is quite similar to those asked in the 18th century by those who wondered how democratic government can be established without it devolving into anarchy or concentrating into despotism.

I would suggest several principles:

1. This first is a meta-principle: Whatever is done about internet governance will be imperfect.  This suggests the following:
PRINCIPLE: Begin by undertaking small projects of internet governance where the harm caused by errors or failures will be constrained and relatively easily remedied.

This is consistent with my submissions to prior meetings at the ITU and UN in which I urged that we make a clear and dispassionate examination of the jobs that internet governance requires and around those jobs we tailor very closely fitting and highly constrained organizations focused solely and exclusively upon one particular job.  This principle, that form should follow function, seemed very widely held by the attendees at those previous meetings.

It also seems prudent to establish a limited lifetime for these early bodies of internet governance.  They should be formed with the clear knowledge that at some day in the future they will have to prove that they are useful else they will cease.

2. PRINCIPLE: People and nations have a right to shape their own internet experience according to their own values and preferences.  This does not mean that the rights of one supersede the rights of others.  Rather it means that there is a balance.  Every person, every culture, every religion, every nation, has an equal right to step forward and participate in the making of that balance.

Some may take this as a strong assertion of power.  It is not.  Rather it is the converse, it is an expression of the right of people and nations to be free from the arbitrary imposition of power without giving them full access to the forums in which internet policy is made.

This lack of access and participation has been a fundamental, and to my mind, fatal flaw, in existing experiments of  internet governance.  ICANN, for example, has so greatly distanced itself from the opinions and participations of the community of internet users that ICANN has degenerated into little more than a petty regulatory body, a guild, setting trade rules, establishing prices, imposing fees (taxes), and protecting incumbents from competitive forces.

The role of the individual person should not be dismissed or submerged.  Many people, perhaps the majority of people, are willing to allow their viewpoints to be represented indirectly through governments and Civil Society actors.  However, the door should not be closed against those who have the motivation, skill, and resources to act alone.  We must remember that ultimately, the atomic unit of every collegiate entity, every government, every corporation, and every other human endeavor is the individual human being.

3. I of course have to raise what I call "The First Law of the Internet":

PRINCIPLE: 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.

This is a refinement of principle #2 in that it begins to describe the structure in which the balance is struck between competing internet uses and policies.

In the near future I will expand this list of principles.  But there is also the very real question of doing concrete and pragmatic things.

In my previous submissions I urged that there be established certain highly limited and highly focused bodies to deal with certain easily identifiable matters of internet operation and governance.  It seems clear to me that there is little question as to what some early experimental bodies of internet governance could be.  It seems that the question we face is how to structure these bodies so that they are in accord with our body of principles and are well formed so that they begin and continue to exist as transparent, open, and accountable entities.

Posted by karl at September 17, 2004 3:30 AM