I attended a conference this week about the impact of technology on social issues. It had many interesting speakers, not least the wonderful people at AccessNow who are doing extraordinary and secret things to help political activists use the web and get the word out despite repression. Above all, it was fascinating to watch people grapple with the seismic impact of technology on the world – but with no clear map to guide them. Many, I’m afraid, turned to familiar prejudices to show the way.
One theme of the conference was clearly that many felt that the best way to ensure open access to the web was government regulation. The usual dichotomy was trotted out – only government can provide the necessary regulatory defence to prevent big business running the web. It’s the same stale dualist argument that so inhibits creative political debate, particularly here in the US where “progressives” seem deeply wedded to government as the answer, and to question government puts one on the side of the Tea Party. Government or the market, with nothing else on the table.
But on the internet, notwithstanding the very real danger of commercial ownership and control of this new territory, it is far from clear that government regulation is the answer. Indeed, I was a bit worried to hear news that various governments are considering a UN General Assembly resolution on governance of the Internet. Control of the Internet in the hands of the General Assembly? Not an idea that inspires, rather the contrary. I am going to find out more about this, and see what they are planning.
Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the web, was most insightful about this question, no doubt because of his deep understanding of the technology. He said that the two most important issues on the Internet were ensuring equal access and pressing governments to release data onto the web – he mentioned an initiative he has started in the UK on this. A trenchant reminder that transparency is a critical issue, perhaps the critical issue.
But another remark he made set me thinking. He commented that the Internet works best when decentralized. This seems an obvious point but its implication undermines the argument for government control, which is by its nature centralizing. Instead, this view actually suggests that government should not be running the web. My growing feeling was reinforced that we need to be thinking instead about cooperative models, following the inspiring examples of the open source movement and wikipedia (more on this in due course).
Above all, I was struck that apart from the ever brilliant Larry Lessig (in conversation) no one at the conference seemed ready to confront what appears an obvious reality. If the web enables the more equal and wider distribution of information, it must mean in consequence the wider distribution of power. This not only implies that government would likely be an inadequate if not retrograde tool to control and arbitrate the Internet, it also implies that government as we know it, where the few make decisions for the many, is facing its demise.
This conclusion seems logical, but extraordinary. In the Internet, we are in fact confronting a new political reality. The many challenges that the Internet poses – who runs it, who owns it, who has access to it, what is permissible and what not – are joined by another rather more fundamental challenge: to rethink our political ideas for a world of distributed information and power. The Internet challenges us to rethink politics as we know it, for the organizing idea of politics hitherto – who is in government and how should they govern – is on its way becoming a thing of the past. Goodbye centralized government and control, and a wary but welcoming hello to distributed power, distributed government (self-government, perhaps), and a wholly unfamiliar, but inevitable, new political reality.
As ever, I would welcome comments and particularly any suggestions of people who are writing, talking about this.
1st Postscript: this article in the NY Times about Eben Moglen’s “Freedom Box” is relevant to this discussion (thanks Neil Levine for that tip).