First, do no harm.
That is the message I would like to bring to the e-G8 summit on the internet gathered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy this week in Paris.
I am apprehensive about a meeting of government and industry that begins with the presumption that they wield authority over the internet, the people’s internet. Cory Doctorow decided not to attend, declaring it a “whitewash” for regimes that are at “war with the free, open net.” Perhaps that’s the right decision. Given the chance to go, I decided to witness it up close and say what I have to say so at least I can say I said it. And that is this:
The internet was born open, free, and distributed. As conceived and built, all bits are created equal. It must stay that way. Sarkozy called this meeting to discuss the growth of the internet. It will grow only if it is open and free.
Like John Perry Barlow, I believe that governments have no sovereignty in the net. There is no consent of the governed as there are no governed there. Governments are not the appropriate bodies to protect the internet. When one government assumes that authority, all will. If the U.S., the U.K, the E.U., the U.N., or the G8 impose their wills on the net — no matter how benevolent they claim to be (and none should be trusted) — then China, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and no end of tyrants and despots will also claim the right to govern the net. We will end up living under the high water mark of regulation. That means the death of the open net and all it affords society. Instead of reducing the internet through regulation, government should protect the internet.
Companies are also not to be trusted as protectors of the net. Even as I praised Google for at long last deciding to stop doing the bidding of censorious Chinese dictators, it was negotiating a cynical devil’s compact with Verizon to apportion the net into a neutral wired net and a constrained wireless net. No, companies are not to be trusted. The most appalling thing about the Google-Verizon-FCC pact was that the people were not at the table. These companies and agencies presume to cut up our internet and do not even try to give the appearance of including us. That is the dangerous vacuum they try to fill.
Some argue that protecting net neutrality is a form of government regulation. At South by Southwest, Sen. Al Franken convincingly counters that all net neutrality is doing is assuring that the internet is not changed, not perverted from its original state of freedom. He exhorted the crowd of net people, creative people, and entrepreneurs: “It is time for us to use the internet to save the internet.”
The pity is that this meeting on the future of the internet and its growth was called by a head of state and not by us, the people of the net. We have only ourselves to blame. Imagine if this meeting had instead been called by some other body closer to the people with preservation of net freedom as its agenda: an Electronic Frontier Foundation, a Mozilla Foundation, a Berkman Center, SXSW, a university, students in Egypt, an ad hoc disorganization of people online… who?
And what would such an assembly do? I have argued that we need to have a discussion of the principles of the net. I don’t think we will ever get much past discussion, as I do not want to see the imposition of governance on the net from government or corporations or self-appointed bodies, either.
But we must have an open and vigorous discussion of principles so we can discern the shape of our beliefs. In the course of that, I argue at the conclusion of my book Public Parts, “some truths will become self-evident. We will come to examine what matters to us and what we must protect. We will expose different views, priorities, dangers, and needs. Most important, we will have an expression of some principles to point to when powerful institutions try to control our net and diminish our publicness, power, and freedom.”
I welcome the discussion in Paris. I wonder about context set by the convener and the congregants it gathers. Yes, government should be at the table. See German Justice Minister Sabina Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger also calling (auf Deutsch) for a debate over digital values. Yes, companies should be at the table. Like it or not, they build the net. But the table should be ours, not theirs.
There have been many attempts to craft bills of rights for the net, from the Association for Progressive Communications, to a group of Chinese intellectuals, to the Internet Rights and Principles Coalition, to the Brazillian Internet Steering Committee, to the Facebook users who wrote a set of social rights. There is much good thinking there. I offer mine to add to the discussion, broadening it, I hope, to embrace not only the openness of the internet but also the principles of publicness (I go into these in greater depth in my book):
I. We have the right to connect.
II. We have the right to speak.
III. We have the right to assemble and to act.
IV. Privacy is an ethic of knowing.
V. Publicness is an ethic of sharing.
VI. Our institutions’ information should be public by default, secret by necessity.
VII. What is public is a public good.
VIII. All bits are created equal.
IX. The internet must stay open and distributed.
The last one is the internet’s best protection: its own structure. To the leaders gathered in Paris, I say of that architecture: Primum non nocere. First, do no harm.
I am also set to be on a panel about privacy and data. There, I plan to say that the framing of the discussion is limited and prejudicial. Why is the discussion about privacy? It should also be about protecting publicness.
The internet is our greatest tool of publicness ever. It is everyperson’s Gutenberg press. It enables anyone to speak to everyone. It allows revolutionaries to organize and supports their revolutions. It brings transparency to governments and markets. It helps us find and organize our own publics, across boundaries, apart from mass labels. We should be discussing protecting the internet rather than protecting us from it.
In Der Spiegel (auf Deutsch), Christian Stöcker warns against the demonizing of tools. That is, I fear, the starting point of this discussion, like so many others. If this discussion is about the growth of the internet, then we should guard against restricting it because of prospective fears before we even fully understand it.
At this entire meeting, we must be aware of the internet as a means of disruption. That is why it frightens institutions of legacy power and why they hope to regulate and limit it, using convenient masks — privacy, security, civility…. And that is why I worry when those institutions call a meeting to discuss governing the agent of their own disruption.
There is no reason for me to be at the E-G8 except that I happen to know people who invited me (after the initial lists were out). No one elected me. I have no standing to represent anyone. But I would like to try to represent some of your views, as best I can. So please enter into the discussion here.
(Full disclosure: As an academic without corporate support, I accepted travel accommodations from Publicis, which is organizing this meeting on behalf of the French government. I did not pay nor am I being paid to attend.)
: Here is the NY Times’ preview of the event. AFP’s. Reuters‘. WSJ’s.
: Here is a petition urging Sarkozy et al “to publicly commit to citizen-centered policies like expanding internet access for all, combating digital censorship and surveillance, limiting online intermediary liability, and upholding principles of net neutrality.”
FROM PARIS: I got to ask my question of Sarkozy this morning. He acknowledged in his talk today that government does not own the internet. I said that if a government asserts authority over the internet, any internet can. So I asked him and the G8 to take the Hippocratic pledge: First, do no harm.
He mocked the question, saying that was easy, that he would take the pledge. Ah, but then he defined harm. He asked whether it was harmful for the government to protect intellectual property, security, children… Having no microphone now, I could not say that, indeed, it could be harmful.
I write from the city where Gutenberg’s erstwhile partner and funder, Johann Fust, was nearly arrested because he came here to sell printed Bibles. The booksellers in Paris called the policy on him, declaring there was no way he could have so many Bibles except from the work of black magic. Well, today, the internet is still black magic. We don’t know what it is yet. To define it, restrict it, regulate it, limit it before we even know what it is, there is danger there.
Yes, President Sarkozy, you can do harm.
: Here is video of Sarkozy’s talk and my Q&A (starting at 48:10):
: LATER: Here’s Dave Morgan’s good summary of the event.