2018 – transparency will be the key

At last month’s Internet Governance Forum in Geneva, one of the acknowledged creators of the internet,  Vint Cerf,   was asked what he wished for in 2018.  His reply was telling

No further fragmentation of the internet.

Conforming with a single set of technical rules to allow computer to speak unto computer is one thing. As far as I know there is no immediate or obvious threat to that. What Cerf must have been referring to, therefore, are the politically and commercially determined policies which shape how people actually experience the internet wherever they happen to be on the planet.

If I am right about that Vint Cerf’s wish has already perished. On Monday Germany ‘s new laws on hate speech became operative.   In May next year the GDPR will kick in. There are countless examples of how different countries do things their own way in cyberspace.

The laws of nation- states increasingly will determine the sort of internet that is accessible to you and me. There is a sort of democratic symmetry about that which people will find easy to understand. I’m ok with that although I think it may be a while before it will be true for every country in the world. Size matters.

And in those countries where democratic symmetry or democratic anything is still a far-off dream? I can see that is an issue but it is simply absurd to argue that internet policy for the whole world is, in effect, determined by the fluctuating fortunes of the worst dictatorships.

So let’s start the New Year with a statement of the obvious. The honeymoon is well and truly over.

The wonder of the internet and its associated technologies remains as bright as ever but there is a much greater willingness on the part of many to look beyond the glitz.

“Many” here means consumer groups, civil rights and other civil society organizations, small technology firms and, above all, governments. Traditional media outlets have become not disinterested allies of all the above. That is quite an array of adversaries.

This scenario is particularly true in the developed nations, where there has been the longest, deepest and most pervasive exposure to the internet. Yet even in the global south, where the internet is still growing exponentially, there is much less willingness to buy into the marketing hype or the nerdy muteness which appears to accept anything and everything in the name of innovation. The flaws have become all too apparent.

Tony Blair famously said politicians

Campaign in poetry but govern in prose

That is true not just of politicians. It is also true of Silicon Valley and anyone selling anything. If the gap between the poetry and the prose becomes too large cynicism and distrust set in.

Either way, assuming it is not already too late, the only way forward for the internet industry in its broadest sense is going to involve substantial changes and the key to those changes will be transparency.

With their promises to expand the number of moderators Google and Facebook have certainly been showing they understand the position they are in but unless and until we see how they propose to deal with the transparency imperative it is too soon to say whether we have an acceptable, and therefore stable, way forward.

However, I will make one small prediction. Google, Facebook, Twitter and others will not be able, simply, to announce the terms on which they are willing to be transparent. There has to be a strong, properly resourced and credible, independent element. The history of Advisory Boards is not a good augury. Hopefully,  everybody has realised that.