Is The User Obsolete In Internet Policy?

Yesterday I attended a panel discussion titled “Governments and Internet Governance“, sponsored by the Institute for International Economic Policy and the Internet Society. I was surprised how much of the conversation tilted towards intergovernmental processes.

International cooperation is important: there are problems that need international cooperation to be solved. But international cooperation can also be a way to elevate policy decisions beyond the reach of ordinary citizens. When that involves nuclear arms treaties, it is good. When it involves the Internet, maybe not.

In my Millenium article, I explain how the people using TCP/IP built the Internet – and how the Internet became the Internet because the technology favored the users who were spreading it across the globe. This often happened despite government regulation and international cooperation – especially cooperation in the CCITT (now the ITU-T) and ISO. Both bodies proposed alternatives to TCP/IP that were ultimately rejected – by the users.

The last ten years have seen an explosion of interest in Internet policy by governments — instances of which include the Net Neutrality debate, the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations, and the EU’s “Right to be Forgotten”. As an Internet policy wonk from way back, this is gratifying and alarming.

By alarming, I mean that I worry that Internet users’ interests are not being adequately represented in debates over Internet policy, against the much more prominent interests of governments, industry lobbies, telecoms, and corporations. To some extent the panel discussion affirmed that concern: there were several representatives from from governments and IGOs, and their framing of the policy challenges of the Internet very much reflected traditional offline governance thinking – which I suppose it must.

To be clear, I think government has a role on the Internet: nearly every user will want government help when a crime is committed against them online, or will want the courts to resolve problems affecting them. But as governments become more involved, the more they will bring pressure to bear to revise the Internet into something tractable to their means of governance. While the impulse is understandable, it also poses a serious threat to the Internet as it is, and to the users who value that experience.

In order to resist that pressure – to preserve the Internet – users need advocates engaged in these policy debates on their behalf. Two of the panelists – Sally Wentworth from ISOC, and Veni Markovski from ICANN – filled that role admirably in the panel discussion. Alas, most users don’t appreciate how absolutely vital to the Internet these organizations are, and they have relatively few close allies: EFF, CDT, etc.

These organizations work very hard on behalf of Internet users, and have been relatively successful. But as the bureaucratic momentum for Internet regulation builds, and corporate influence becomes more pervasive, there is a real risk that the user perspective may dwindle in importance to policymakers.

There are companies – Google, for example – whose policy agendas tilt towards user interests. There are even governments – Brazil, for example, represented on the panel by Carolina de Cresce El Debs – which  position as user allies. While users may welcome their engagement, I do think it is a mistake to rely on these entities to fully represent users’ interests. Google and Brazil may be helpful, but ultimately they are driven by a different set of interests and motives than most people. There is no good substitute or stand-in for the user perspective in these debates.

Even within the U.S. government, the tension between user and owner interests drives many policy debates. The FCC may (fingers-crossed) implement net neutrality, even as the TPP negtiations seek to undermine some aspects of that decision. The Defense Department created TOR to let users go anonymously, while the NSA tries to gather as much information as possible. Not surprisingly, the U.S.’s leadership on problems of Internet policy has been weak and inconsistent – which is unfortunate, because the U.S. is the government best able to defend user interests, if policy-makers wanted to do so.

The Internet is an amazing technology. Much of its power and potential is due to the privilege it gives its users – over the owners and governments who might wish otherwise. As the Internet is more and more subject to government intervention – especially at the international level – the more potential there is for  those interests to erode the privileges users enjoy, even to reverse them.

The result would be very different Internet: less interesting, less valuable, less transformative. The only way to ensure that does not happen is for users’ interests to be adequately represented at all levels of Internet policy.




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