Monday, 27 May 2013

The Law of the Internet

I've spoken to a number of journalists over the last few weeks who have all posited some variation of the simple question: "Don't national governments have the right to govern the Internet?"  While it is a simple question, it doesn't have a simple answer, and perhaps not for the reason that many people think.

There are many technology activists who see cyberspace as the first truly transnational place: where the existing rules don't apply, and a new set of rules - better rules - can take their place; where we can leave meatspace behind and become a meritocracy of the mind.  I strongly recommend reading "Snow Crash" by Neal Stephenson to get a sense of it.

I believe that there are three fundamental problems with this approach: (1) the Internet isn't a place; (2) we don't yet live in a futuristic dystopian civilisation; and (3) the Internet was not designed.  It's the last problem that causes all the angst.

If the Internet had been designed by governments, rather than organically grown by technologists, it wouldn't look anything like what we see today.  There would be the controls that national governments want, but there almost certainly wouldn't have been the flourishing of our society that connectedness has brought us.  If you want a real example of this, look at the Internet of DPRK, or the Great Firewall of China.  Then imagine each of these interconnected with deep packet inspection borders to mimic the physical borders we have today.  There would even likely be Internet passports to allow transit.

But it wasn't designed, and the law-makers were slow coming to the party.  By the time they noticed it was largely too late.  As John Gilmore famously said in 1993: "The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it."  It was too late in 1993, and it's way too late in 2013.

Does this mean that the netizens have won, and society as we know it will necessarily fall?

Of course not.  The problems that the Internet brings are the same problems that all societies have had over all of human history.  The links are just faster, and the people vastly more connected.  In the past if someone wanted a business to pay protection money they had to send a hard-man to bully the owners and do a little damage.  There was always the possibility of injury, arrest and incarceration.  Today they DDOS their website, with no possibility of injury, and almost no chance of getting caught.

But the crime is the same.  And the laws to deal with the physical crime are already on the books.

Governments can and should govern the Internet, but they can't control it.  Governing requires the consent of the governed.  Control requires technology.

The Internet is a people problem.  Until national governments realise this, they have no chance.

Phil Kernick Chief Technology Officer