Sunday, January 30, 2005

Reflections on Internet governance and the international system

Back from Paris where I spoke on a panel at Vox-Internet’s conference with Herbert Berkert, who was wry, penetrating and charming as always.

It was very interesting to meet a representative of the free software tribe, who was vociferous in criticism of Assocation for Progressive Communications, and particularly what he saw as their 4 reps on the WGIG. The passion was undeniable, but also the complete lack of diplomatic skills.

He and Herbert confirmed in my mind that 3 incompatible systems (in the LUhmann sense) are trying to co-exist in the Internet governance discussion. First, government reasserting its sovereignty over the Internet, what Herbert calls the ‘repatriation’. domestication or ‘regeographicisation’ of the net (including DRM, IPv6 and firewalling. But also biological/trusted identity creation). He also called it the postmodernisation of the infrastructure, because all these dainty old-fashioned techniques are reimposed on the 21st century, rather like stressed steel and plate glass being topped by fake spires and cupolas in architecture. Not surprising, and demonstrating that we have moved forward, from ‘code is law’ to ‘code is not law’ – and certainly not back to ‘l’etat c’est moi’ (and my corporate feudal lords) as some French Foucaultists claim.

Second, civil society – in the post-ideological state, the politically correct rainbow coalitions are everywhere – even in the UN. This is not new, the World Social Summit is 5 years old, the actions against the MAI from OECD were almost a decade ago, the resistance to the New World Order is passionate – as Herbert said, it’s déjà vu all over again, to NWICO in the 1980s and the anti-capitalist movement then.

Third, the nweebs, the tecchies – and the Stallmanites will lose, just as the Cerfs are reduced to well-meaning advocates wrapped in corporate clothes. Cerf or Stallman, Andreesen or Ted Nelson – visionary loses to pragmatist. The problem is that most of these guys have no social or political skills.

In contrast, the civil society advocates have lots of political skills – and have taken over from the techies. Given that the functionalists in the ITU are anti-IP, or at least pro-capitalist, and that leaves few places for free software to go (despite its merits and integrity). So Lessig might try, but increasingly ‘law is code’ is the future. Herbert called it the Law of the Suppression of the Radical Potential of Technology’ after a book of the mid-80s, ‘Misunderstanding Media’, and it’s true. With ITU seeing next generation networks absorbing IP into its carrier-class networks, is the Internet over?

So the beast is tamed by the power system and by its failure to engage in the language of politics. Might is right, and political correctness more important than technical correctness. JP Barlow would weep…

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

to me this brings up several possible layers of analysis.... the first is... we aren't just talking about incompatible systems of governance, we are really talking about different imaginations of what the internet will be, who will use it, and what they uses they will have for it.

this then brings up the question of technical governance, or perhaps the sub-politics of internet governance, or choices being made at a level where deliberation is not recognized as political, though it usually is.

if people are imagining the techno-economic infrastructure that we might label 'the internet' differently, and various sub-political regimes act upon those within their fields of action and within the limitations of their imaginations, then we will eventually end up with an internet and the 'othernets' which might be perfectly governable by some group somewhere, but it won't be governable by everyone who it affects. these othernets become plural and systematized in a wide variety of ways, nation state actors, ngo governance, and even independent technical groups in the end could do that. in short, code is still law, but only by fiat of those who create it for that purpose, much like the virtual world of stephenson's snow crash. for most people though, code is code, and that code is governed by other laws (which is also true in all cases, i think). so is there technological and geek possibilities? yes, but only to the extent that they escape other regimes in some manner and can't be imagined in terms those regimes really grasp.

jeremy hunsinger