A problem of trust. Not tech. Part 5

The idea of “permissionless innovation” is said to be of fundamental importance to the internet. But does it still trump everything?  Before you answer that question see Vint Cerf on the subject.

Can we continue to accept and live with the idea that the “right to innovate” in the field of technology is a right which sits above all other rights?

Bear in mind, in the name of innovation,  some companies and geeks intentionally construct their products and services or integrate them into wider bundles so as to make it as hard as possible for anyone outside the company or organization to understand them.

They do this in order to make it more difficult for anyone outside e.g. a Regulator, to  engage. Wed that to a bottomless pit of money to pay lawyers and experts to challenge or simply delay any attempts to change your business practices and you end up in a pretty good place. That is if you are a shareholder. Not a citizen.

Think about the chutzpah involved. You deliberately make something complex then one of your key objections to any demands for change is that those demanding the change don’t understand the technology. That has to be worth some sort of prize.

Let’s leave on one side for now whether or not people inside the company themselves, in fact, always retain a firm grip on what it is they have built. Systems can become so complex, in effect some or all of the parts can be  out of control or they can behave in ways or produce results that were never foreseen. And that’s true even if you don’t subscribe to the reckless idea of moving fast and breaking things.

The ghost of John Perry Barlow

A few years ago, with my own ears, I heard a globally prominent uber techie say he thought the British Parliament had no right to vote on anything to do with the internet because most Parliamentarians had “never even heard of the tcp/ip protocol”.  Or words to that effect.

If you are an adherent of the John Perry Barlow school of  arrogance and contempt such attitudes aren’t surprising.

What is surprising is that such attitudes persist, even after so many of the imperfections of the internet and its associated digital technologies have been writ so large and are getting yet still larger. 

Whether motivated by a view of the “proper role” of Governments or some other singular political agenda, or simply by a desire to make money, perhaps some combination of these, is it right that, in the liberal democracies, tech can have a free hand to determine the limits of modern elections?

 “You can vote for any of these clowns but we won’t let them do some of the things they say they want to do because we think those things are bad.”

Ignore the straw man

Whenever the imperfections of permissionless innovation  are raised its advocates produce a straw man, suggesting the only alternative is some massively bureaucratic  state-sponsored central committee which has to approve anything new before it can be released into the world.

But of course that isn’t the only alternative. First off we should remove all the unusual legal protections which tech still enjoys and make them legally responsible for all the  reasonably foreseeable consequences of their actions. And if they say something is a condition of their Terms and Conditions of service they should be able to demonstrate that they have the means to monitor adherence to it and enforce compliance with it.

Children show the way

Recognising the challenges and timescales involved in revisiting the ur document, General Comment 25 (2021) on children’s rights in relation to the digital environmenet was an attempt to “modernise” the way in which  the UNCRC should be interpreted. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child recognised that how children experience the world now is very different  from the way in which they experienced it in 1989.

Given the state of the world today it is probably expecting too much to look forward to a similar consensus emerging in relation to a broader range of cyber issues but that does not mean we should pretend it isn’t necessary.

The scale, speed and jurisdictional complexity of the internet and its associated technologies have profoundly changed the world we live in at a practical level, and manifestly not always for the better. 

If we are to  accommodate the new reality brought about by  the emergence of digital technologies into the mass consumer space, we need to reframe many of the ideas about how the world could and should be run. Analogue thinking alone no longer cuts it.

I hope to return to these points in the not-too-distant future but, for now, I must conclude this brief series of blogs on the current E2EE discussion. So, really, the next one will be the last in the series. Honest.