1net and the myth of technological neutrality

The coalition of non-governmental stakeholders that was initiated by the technical community at the Bali IGF meeting, and that I described in this post, subsequently gained a name and a website: 1net.

Despite a play by 1net’s proponents to gain a special role in organisation of the Brazil meeting, civil society representatives who had self-organised their own liaisons with the Brazil process made it clear that they weren’t comfortable with that. Meanwhile the multi-stakeholder Brazilian Internet steering committee CGI.br assumed much of the role that 1net’s proponents had seen for it, and a broad-based joint Civil Society Internet Governance Coordinating Group came together to nominate civil society’s representatives to the Brazil meeting. So since then 1net has been dithing about what else, if anything, it can usefully do.

As such the 1net dialogue is currently just another mailing list, rather than the “movement” that its website claims, but is proving to be – well, useful would be too strong a word, so let’s say mildly diverting, as a forum for the exchange of views between technical community stalwarts, who normally reside in a bit of a goldfish bowl, and civil society activists and academics – of whom in fairness the same could probably be said.

Here is a post that I made to the list today, in response to the suggestion that a useful activity for 1net would be to gather evidence of the benefits of “neutral” technical administration of the Internet. I responded:

On the other hand, we should also avoid confirmation bias. Let’s examine whether or not neutral technical administration supports underlying values that we support, rather than trying to find evidence that it always does. Otherwise we will tend to entrench elements of existing Internet governance arrangements on the assumption that the Internet as we know it now is the best of all possible Internets, when it may not be.

In any given case there may be other (and less “neutral”) ways of technically administering the Internet that would actually be better at promoting the balance of interests that we can agree through democratic (including globally democratic aka. multi-stakeholder) processes, including privacy, security and freedom of expression.

In the same way that a regulated market is less “neutral” than a free market, but, in cases of market failure, serves consumers’ interests better, so too there may be merit in a level of democratic oversight or intervention into certain technical processes to ensure that broader social values are not overlooked in the administration of Internet resources and development of Internet standards and protocols.

(Before people accuse me of things that I’m not actually saying, for me this is very loose: basically, establishment of processes outside of and broader than existing technical community bodies, to provide a framework of principles, that can guide and direct technical work along socially beneficial lines, rather than assuming that social values are automatically and inherently implicit in those processes.)

Political ideology, of course, comes into this, so we are unlikely always to agree on how much intervention is beneficial, and will be tempted to make generalisations like “no government control over the Internet” or conversely “no democracy without governments, let’s form a UN council to set the rules”. My own take is more nuanced and I’ve set it out at length in posts like these (and many others):

Moreover I think the more explicit that we make the political dimension of this discussion, the better. It is amazing how (what Americans would call) progressives can morph into libertarians just because the context is the Internet. In other words, if you don’t want Internet technical processes to be regulated think hard about why you’re saying that. Do you also not want markets to be regulated? If so, fine; that’s a political view that you’re entitled to. But otherwise, you might be falling into the trap of Internet exceptionalism.