Inside the Information Society: Upsetting and resetting standards, rules and norms

Each week David Souter comments on an important issue for APC members and others concerned about the Information Society. This week’s blog post is about the importance of standards, rules and norms – and the need to re-engineer these for the digital age.

Standards, norms and rules

I spent last week at conferences. Three days, first, at the Global Internet and Jurisdiction Conference in Paris. Then the UK’s national IGF (Internet Governance Forum). One thing struck me at both: the importance of standards, rules and norms – and the need to re-engineer these for the digital age. I’ll make that this week’s theme.

The changing Internet

The Internet’s been seen by some as offering a kind of liberation from traditional governance – from the laws and regulations made by governments (both democratic and non-democratic), from the norms and conventions that people have adopted in their own societies. John Perry Barlow’s Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace is often cited as the climactic statement of net libertarianism.

But, of course, it’s never been like that. Two reasons.

The Internet itself is built on standards, rules and norms.

  • TCP/IP (the underlying protocol(s) behind the Internet) is not a law of nature, but a human construct – a framework on which other human constructs can be built.
  • The domain name system sets the rules for Internet coordination, but it’s obviously not the only way an internet could be coordinated.
  • The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF)’s principle of ‘rough consensus and running code’ sets the frame within which a thousand flowers of innovation bloom.
  • The international rights regime establishes the rules of conduct for governments’ and other stakeholders’ relationships with citizens.

Societies themselves are more obviously built on laws and regulations, rules and norms. A few, like Barlow, envisaged the Internet displacing these. In practice, though, it’s not; it has disrupted, changed and interacted with them. My two conferences looked at that, and especially what interaction means.

The disruptive Internet

The Internet has cut the ground from under many of the standards, rules and norms that have determined how societies are run.

  • Its technology doesn’t share the boundaries of nation-states. Nor do the global corporations that now dominate Internet services and data management.
  • It’s enabled far more complex relationships between citizens and governments, citizens and citizens, citizens and businesses.
  • It’s created new business models that have re-oriented the ways that markets work – but clearly not replaced them: from mainstream business, through the gig economy, to criminality.
  • It’s altered the norms of social interaction and political engagement – from Napster to Tinder, Friends Reuinited to Instagram, the Arab Spring to the alt.right.

The UK IGF explored two ways, in particular, in which old norms have been disrupted by the Internet in Britain.

Social media now play a defining role in young people’s relationships with one another, parents, schools and life experience.

Political engagement now includes more direct participation and political expression, with a shift from mainstream to social media in the shaping of opinions, but has also seen the emergence of ‘fake news’, the growth of online abuse, and widespread concern about echo chambers of opinion polarising political discourse.

The Internet and jurisdiction

So there’s disruption. But most of what we do still depends on rules – on laws, regulations, standards, on systems that we trust to deliver what we’re promised. When we buy things online or offline, we want them to work, and if they don’t we want redress. When we pay taxes, we expect others to be (required to) do so too. We want the equal pay, fair working hours and health and safety regulations that are promised in the international rights regime.

Most people disagree with some of the laws and regulations they live with, but few want to live without the rule of law. More and more, therefore, it’s argued that rules and laws, as well as rights, should be the same online as offline. Problems arise because the ways that people do things differ online from offline, and the ways in which laws, rules and regulations can be evaded or enforced are also different.

The Global Internet and Jurisdiction Conference explored that theme. It was concerned with what happens when national legal frameworks interact with the global nature of the Internet, particularly where legal disputes and criminal investigations are concerned.

Data today, for example, aren’t held in single jurisdictions; they’re held in data centres round the world. The contents of a single email may be physically located in several different countries, each with different laws.

This raises many questions, but one is central: when a dispute arises or a crime’s investigated, whose law applies? When businesses use our data, whose data protection laws apply to us – those where we live, where they’re headquartered or where the data are located? When governments want access to our data, for whatever purpose, who do they try to get it from, and what constrains them? Which country’s rules of evidence apply? When criminals hack our accounts, where do we seek redress?

Some people see these as questions of rights v rules, but they’re more complex. Governments have responsibilities to investigate crime, not least in order to protect rights to security and property. Regulatory frameworks that govern the ways they go about it aren’t just essential to investigation, rules are also needed to protect rights, such as that to privacy. Without them, there’s nothing to ensure that rights apply.

And criminal investigations are just one area of many where rules and rights are intertwined.

The need for cooperation

So: old rules and norms are undermined by the internationalism of the Internet. New norms and rules are needed that preserve those aspects of what we’ve had that we value – like the dynamic innovation of the Internet, like the international rights regime – but which will work in the digital age. Discussions at my conferences focused on two types of cooperation here.

The first was multistakeholder. Whatever future norms and rules emerge, they’ll need to be technically feasible and they’ll need the consent of those who have to make them work. Governments can’t do this alone, nor can businesses, nor can technologists. All need to be involved, and all must be informed by the Internet’s end-users.

The second was international. There’ve long been frameworks for handling the interface between different legal jurisdictions, but they’re not coping with new contexts where data are digital and globally distributed by default, and where criminal and other investigations often involve multiple jurisdictions. International cooperation’s needed not just at the legal interface but in developing new rules governing that interface, including the legal instruments and legal protections that go with it.

And the prospects?

How well are we doing where these cooperations are concerned?

Multistakeholder cooperation’s come a fair way since the World Summit on the Information Society ended a decade ago. It’s long been a core principle of technical decision-making on the Internet. There’s now more multistakeholder participation, at least in some countries, at the interface between the Internet and public policy.

That’s not assured, however. Multistakeholder processes can be slow to reach agreement, while technology and services are changing fast. The nature of multistakeholder participation’s changing as the Internet’s direction is becoming more determined by commercial players. Maybe multistakeholderism itself needs to pay more attention to its rules and norms.

The outlook with international cooperation’s poorer.

The Internet’s a global phenomenon, whose value – its advocates agree – depends greatly on its being universal. Yet globalisation has become deeply unpopular in many countries, and protectionism is on the rise.

The Internet’s become associated strongly with international human rights. Yet there’s been an upsurge of authoritarianism around the world.

Meeting the goals discussed above requires international cooperation and agreement. Yet there’s been a rise in nationalism, too, around the world. My own country (Britain) has voted against staying in the European Union. It’s not by any means the only place where international cooperation’s now treated with suspicion.

Where the Internet’s concerned, most people will want two things from rules and norms: to ensure that the Internet remains dynamic and innovative, offering them greater benefits; and to ensure that it does not harm them. There’ll be different views about how these two objectives can be met. Cooperation, though – both multistakeholder and international – looks essential, and the times are not as propitious as they were for that.

My blog next week will be on the ITU’s latest Measuring the Information Society report.

David Souter is a longstanding associate of APC, and has worked for more than twenty years on the relationship between ICTs and public policy, particularly development, environment, governance (including Internet governance) and rights. David writes a weekly blog for APC, looking at different aspects of the Information Society, development and rights. David’s blog takes a fresh look at many of the issues that concern APC and its members, with the aim of provoking discussion and debate. It comments on current topics and international meetings, draws attention to new reports and publications, critiques assumptions and suggests alternative perspectives. The views are his own, not APC’s. We hope that they will stimulate discussion, and that others will contribute their ideas in complementary blogs in future. More about David Souter. Follow him on Twitter.
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