The love-hate relationship between the Internet technical community and civil society

I’m Australian, but I’ve been living in Malaysia for almost six years. One thing that you may not know about Malaysia is that they have an active stand-up comedy scene here. One of the staples of the scene is that the Chinese, Indian and Malay comedians will all make fun not only of their own race – which is something they could do in Australia too – but also of the other races, using some pretty offensive stereotypes, that I’m not going to repeat here! So in honour of that, I’m going to do the same thing, though it’s not going to be stand-up comedy, and the races that I’m going to be talking about are not Chinese, Indian or Malay, but the Internet technical community, and civil society. And I can do this, because I myself have a technical and a civil society background; so if I offend anyone here, be assured that I am offending myself as well. Having said that, in present company it seems safest to begin by offending civil society. To techies, “civil society” is a bogus concept, referring to a bunch of failed career politicians who lack a basic understanding of the technology behind the Internet, have no legitimacy to represent Internet users as they claim to do, and litter their conversation with stupid acronyms like “WSIS”, “MDGs” and “LDCs”. To civil society, the technical community are a bunch of narrow-minded, politically libertarian geeks, who can’t (or refuse to) understand the policy dimensions of technology, or how it is shaped by power and money, and who litter their conversation with stupid acronyms like “BGP”, “MPLS” and “DNSSEC”. Civil society loves to use human rights to justify all sorts of demands, and are endlessly critical of big business, and America, and other rich countries, for not fulfilling those supposed rights, but they never display an ounce of gratitude for the fact that without those same companies and countries, supported by the technical community, they wouldn’t even have any Internet to complain about. The technical community on the other hand has a massive superiority complex. They think that because they know about routing or DNS, they also know politics. In fact they know it better than the politicians do, because the technical community’s processes for standards development and resource allocation are actually the best processes in the world for doing anything, and can be applied without any changes to the political realm. So this is where we are at. Both the Internet technical community and civil society think that they know it all, and that the other side is stupid and naive. And since I identify with both sides, you can just imagine the extent of my self-loathing. But we have to move on from that, because the future of the Internet depends on the two sides learning to get along. Both need to recognise their own limitations, and the value of what the other side has to contribute. Civil society and the technical community may hate each other sometimes, but could they really be a perfect match? I think the answer is yes. And the reason is Edward Snowden. Now I know what some of you are thinking – changes to Internet governance have nothing to do with Snowden’s revelations about NSA surveillance – and you’re right, in a narrow sense; the DNS root, for example, is not going to be any less secure just because the NSA is headquartered in the same country as ICANN. But what Edward Snowden did do is to bring the technical community and civil society together in agreement on one point – that the status quo needs to change. And that is the turning point for our communities. The Montevideo Statement, Fadi Chehadé’s role in the establishment of the NetMundial 2014 meeting, and most recently ISOC’s announcement that it would finally support the IGF developing recommendations – none of these would have happened without Edward Snowden. And it’s not all one way. Civil society is also realising that it needs to expand its own horizons beyond its little goldfish bowl. Two years ago I perceived that there was a disconnect between the NGOs that I was working with on Internet governance issues, and the digital rights groups from North America who were campaigning for “Internet freedom”, many of whom were closely linked with the technical community. We were doing similar things, but weren’t coordinating very well with each other, or even talking. So we formed a new civil society network called Best Bits to bring those movements together. Taking this a step further was the formation of the 1net initiative last year by the technical community organisations, who invited civil society in too. 1net has taken some missteps, but the promise of this initiative is to bring the Internet technical community and broader civil society together to share their own different experiences of the Internet, their own opinions of what its core values are, and their ideas about joint strategies to preserve its value and to address its shortcomings. So I hope and believe that the future of the Internet technical community and civil society is together. When we fight with each other, it gets ugly, and I know this better than most. But together, we could just save the Internet. This is the text of a Lightning Talk given at APRICOT 2014.