“The State of the Net”


Last week I attended the “State of the Net” conference in not-so-snow-bound Washington DC. It’s the first one of these  now annual events I have been to and I would definitely like to go again. There was a stunning array of speakers drawn from politics,  regulators, journalism, geeks, academics, advocates, lobbyists, and entrepreneurs.  I managed to sit in on all the plenary sessions and learned a lot of new stuff,  some of which  I will tell you about here. However, obviously,  since I was on a panel I couldn’t attend all the break outs so this is not going to be a comprehensive report of everything that happened. I believe if you go to the web site videos of each session are available.

The challenge of anonymity

By way of preamble, on the flight over I finished “The Dark Net” by Jamie Bartlett. It’s beautifully written and therefore easy to read.  As the title suggests the book is not exactly a detailed appraisal of all the positive things the internet has given the human race although Bartlett does, of course, allude to these.  That said I doubt you will find a better exposition anywhere of how some of the whackos, terrorists  and criminal fraternities of the world have flourished thanks to the creation of cyberspace.  Are such groups and individuals threatening civilization as we know it? Does the downside outweigh the upside of the internet? Definitely not, at least not yet. But anonymity through encryption are the keys to the success of these undesirable elements and while, right now, one might easily dismiss people’s anxieties as self-serving paranoia promoted by police and intelligence agencies it is nevertheless hard not to feel a mite unsettled about where it could all lead.  I mean if, 25 years ago, you had said that, one day in the not-too-distant-future,  videos of kittens dancing with each other would be readily available, simultaneously, on billions of screens in every country of the world, who would have believed you?

As Bartlett’s book reveals some (by no means all) of those pushing the anonymity/encryption agenda most vigorously have pretty near total contempt for western or indeed any other kind of democracy. It is a terrible conundrum.

How are we going to balance the legitimate uses of anonymity and encryption with the state’s primary obligation to protect its citizens, perhaps especially the weakest of its citizens, from evil doers?

The Rule of Law is what makes the modern world work in an acceptable way for the overwhelming majority of us but that concept implies at least the possibility that the laws which we are meant to live by can in fact be enforced as and when or if they need to be. The emergence of large scale encryption and anonymity threaten that idea. Incidentally, both in Bartlett’s book and at the “State of the Net” conference the role of BitCoin and other forms of  anonymous e-payments systems got a lot of coverage, illuminating both their potential for good but also the way in which they can play into substantial challenges to the continued existence of the Rule of Law and its constant companion, the (tenacious) Nation State.

Internet governance

Unsurprisingly, internet governance was a major theme throughout the day in DC. In particular the IANA transition came up a lot. This is about the US Government surrendering the last vestiges of  (potential) control of a key part of the technical infrastructure of the internet although, guess what? It is far from being a done deal. There are at least three different clouds on the IANA horizon:

  1. The US Congress may yet decide to legislate on this topic. Although such legislation could end up tying the hands of the Administration in any number of ways, including minimally, it is hard to imagine anything more destructive of the idea that the internet is now really a global medium  operating in a multistakeholder environment, serving no single country’s interests more than it does any other.
  2. Even if the transition goes ahead in the way many hope it will, as with the ICANN Affirmation of Commitments the agreement is likely to be justiciable only in US Courts and perhaps enforceable only by the US  Government should it later judge that the terms of the transition are not being honoured. Linked to this idea several opinions were aired about what should go into the putative transition agreement. It was suggested that certain red lines ought be drawn and locked in forever. This is just another way of saying that a lot internet activists/acolytes believe the rest of the world is not to be trusted to do the job right. Such an attitude is not calculated to win friends in the capital cities of other nations but that is clearly an unimportant detail for those whose life seems to be completely dedicated to keeping the internet the way it is today or, better still, the way  it was yesterday.
  3. There is a deadline for reaching agreement on the transition.  It is 30th September, 2015 – the date the existing IANA arrangements expire. If this slips, as seems quite likely at the moment because of uncertainties about the US’s  final position, this will be interpreted in “some quarters” (which I think is code for China, Russia, India, Brazil, Iran and their associates) as evidence of a lack of a serious intention on the part of the US authorities actually to allow the transition to proceed. That, in turn, will increase mistrust and hasten the  demise of the global internet. Apparently.

Internet governance, children and un-American activities

In my workshop, inter alia, there was a great deal of discussion about how, in essence, the internet had been constructed around a set of cultural and political assumptions which reflected the values and outlooks of those who first put it together and this was now causing inevitable tensions. Nobody should be surprised to discover that not everyone  shares the founders’assumptions. On the contrary they feel that, at any rate within their own jurisdictions, they have a perfect legal and moral right to do things their own way.  US/European hegemony is coming to an end in the world as a whole and in relation to the internet too. We just need to get used to it or find a way to accommodate it.

I made a sort of similar point in relation to the position of children and young people.  The shared cultural and political assumptions of those who built the internet and some of its leading companies reflect the values and outlooks of the (typically) well educated, nerdy adults, predominantly male computer and network engineers from the richer countries who were in the cyber vanguard.

In the early days kids simply didn’t feature. To the extent that anyone was aware of any possible issues  about minors being online they were considered not worthy of the attention of the mega brains who were focusing on changing the planet through technology. Kids were, are or ought to be the banal and trivial preoccupations of parents and schools, not “serious scientists” or, for that matter,  political campaigners intent on using the internet to overthrow (their version) of tyranny everywhere.

At that time children and young people were, indeed , literally  non-existent as internet users and for quite a while  they constituted only a small percentage of the total number. However, in the coming period all of the large scale growth in internet user numbers is going to take place in countries where the demography is completely different. Legal minors in some cases are about 50% of all the country’s inhabitants. This suggests the proportion of internet users who are kids may soon exceed 50% in those places. Yet if you survey the contemporary landscape of internet governance you would be hard pressed to find any recognition, much less acceptance of this fact.  

Your socks and your toothbrush 

Seemingly socks and toothbrushes are now on sale which can collect and broadcast data about what you are doing with  them and where you are doing it. Many of these “wearable” and personal  devices, one thinks of health and fitness trackers for example,  often come without any kind of screen which would allow the user to change the settings, at least not easily or rapidly but they are capable of amassing extremely intimate information about you, or your children.

Clearly there is a gigantic amount of work to be done to ensure consumers understand all this before they buy or use such products, but equally any business that collects and keeps these types of data has an enormous responsibility both to store it securely and use it properly. The  internet of things is finally here and it raises a whole new raft of concerns for all of us.