The difficulty of speaking truth to power. Part 1 of 3 (probably)

Sometimes you hear the internet described as “the largest social experiment in history”, often with a rider about children being the canary in the coal mine. The problem with that metaphor is the word “experiment”. Typically, it implies some sort of intentional or controlled, closely observed action to test a hypothesis, learn from the results or both. The internet was once that, but it hasn’t been for ages.

The internet’s pioneers lived in what I call the era of the “three-Dannys-internet”[1].   It was a small, intimate community of highly educated individuals sharing a common goal and many of the same values. They trusted each other to honour the widely accepted ethics of the network.  Together they were building a “new thing” using packet-switching technology. These venerable persons have, and had, every right to be proud of what they achieved but I am constantly nagged by a question.

When they finally realised large numbers of newbies were going to be joining the throng, people who might not share any of their values or outlooks, who knew nothing of the ethics or traditions of the network, was it then already too late to build in additional systems e.g. authentication protocols, which might have helped reduce the level of criminal and other forms of abuse which are now all too familiar to us all, not just those concerned with the welfare and safety of children?  Was the subject even raised?  

I know hindsight can be bought cheaply but I ask the question nevertheless because every technological development has instantly and always been leapt upon by criminals to see how it might be exploited to their advantage. Did that not figure in anyone’s thoughts or conversations at the IETF or elsewhere? If it did why was it dismissed or not acted upon?

Thus, it is hardly surprising many people now think much of internet policy today is driven solely or largely by the need to address the unintended, the unforeseen and the unwanted consequences of earlier oversights. Failures to think things through. If I had to confess sins of omission on this scale to a priest, I’d need at least a month to perform the necessary acts of contrition.

I doubt anyone among the pioneers could have anticipated the ways in which Web 2.0 would facilitate the emergence of the surveillance state or surveillance capitalism, or how their invention would become an engine for the massive expansion in crimes against children or fraud of various kinds, but these were all made possible at least in part by previous increments of neglect or myopia.

What also quickly emerged in the early days of the internet was the way it attracted groups with very different hopes and aspirations for it.  A number were simply techies for whom building the network was almost an end in itself, a technical challenge. Then there was the money, businesspeople who spotted an opportunity to make a buck. Others saw the internet’s potential to upend and, as they saw it, improve the world of politics and Government. Together they constituted a sort of triple alliance with fluid boundaries. You could be in only one camp, two camps or all three simultaneously depending on the circumstances.

These latter voices were able to seize upon and manipulate public misgivings about politics and Government, particularly in the USA. They found their most egregious outlet in John Perry Barlow’s hyperbolic, Utopian (Dystopian) fantasy, the Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.  It opens as follows

“Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.” (emphasis added).

It gets a lot worse. If you have time, read it right to the end. These guys definitely inhaled but this type of thinking left a legacy which, when taken together with other, later events, sometimes make it very difficult to get a hearing for even the simplest and most straightforward ideas, particularly if they involve changes to the status quo.

To be continued.


[1] In a famous Ted Talk Danny Hillis brandishes a slender volume which contained the names and telephone numbers of everybody in the world who had an email address in 1982. There were two other people called Danny listed and he knew them both.

About John Carr

John Carr is one of the world's leading authorities on children's and young people's use of digital technologies. He is Senior Technical Adviser to Bangkok-based global NGO ECPAT International and is Secretary of the UK's Children's Charities' Coalition on Internet Safety. John is now or has formerly been an Adviser to the Council of Europe, the UN (ITU), the EU and UNICEF. John has advised many of the world's largest technology companies on online child safety. John's skill as a writer has also been widely recognised.
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