Wanted: Internet without tears or fears

Does Internet governance matter for Sri Lanka? Since we have enough governance challenges in the physical world, should we leave cyber governance for others to resolve?

Vint Cerf, an American computer pioneer and a ‘Father of the Internet’, is fond of saying that the Internet is a laboratory experiment that escaped. Indeed, what started as an academic and military exercise has transformed our world. Its origins can be traced back to scientific research the US government commissioned in the 1960s for building a computer network that could withstand any disruption. The resulting innovation had data packets being routed through different paths, avoiding traditional barriers and control mechanisms. The precursor network, ARPANET, connected some American universities and military bases. In the early 1970s, Vint Cerf and Robert E Kahn developed the communications protocols (TCP/IP) that enabled computers and other devices to exchange data seamlessly. But the Internet’s ‘escape’ into the outside world happened only in the 1990s, after its graphical interface – the World Wide Web – was invented in 1989.

Today, the Internet comprises many private, public, academic, business and government networks. By 2016, an estimated 3.5 billion people – almost half of humankind – were using it on a regular basis.

Connecting the other half remains a challenge, but meanwhile, the Internet has become the ultimate global platform. It allows myriads of individuals and groups to express themselves, as well as to share, co-create and disseminate content. More business, diplomacy and governance activities are also moving online. This proliferation of applications creates both new opportunities and problems. As the planetary ‘experiment’ keeps evolving, governments, corporations and other users are struggling to keep up with the march of technology, and its socio-cultural and political consequences.

By design, the Internet has no central command. While its digital infrastructure and technical functions are based on universal standards, there is no government, corporation or UN agency in control of the whole thing. Countries like China can block large sections of the web (such as Facebook and Google), but that is only a domestic arrangement. From the early days, decisions about Internet-related matters have involved governments, tech companies, civil society groups and the academic community. This is known as the multi-stakeholder approach.

They face plenty of challenges. For example: How can the Internet’s potential for public good be optimised, while responding to worrying trends like hacking, hate speech, cyber bullying and fake news? What can users do to ensure the web remains open (i.e. free of censorship and other restrictions) and safe for everyone? Is the right to Internet access a basic human right? How much control should governments have in pursuit of a safe and open Internet?

There are no easy answers, but reassuringly, some of the world’s finest minds are tackling such questions. For over a decade, the annual UN Internet Governance Forum (UN-IGF) has served as a platform for discussing and debating them.

Known as a “multi-stakeholder forum for policy dialogue on issues of Internet governance”, the UN-IGF brings together hundreds of representatives from all stakeholders. Unlike at other UN events, where governments dominate, these parties meet on an equal basis.

UN-IGFs have been held every year since 2006 in different regions of the world. I had the opportunity to participate in the 11th annual forum held in Guadalajara, Mexico, in early December 2016. I was one of a dozen Internet Governance Fellows selected competitively from across Asia and Africa – a group of journalists, lawyers and entrepreneurs.

Internet governance is a complex new field that has emerged during the last quarter century. “Its complexity is related to its multidisciplinary nature, encompassing a variety of aspects including technology, socio-economics, development, law and politics,” says Jovan Kurbalija, director of the Diplo Foundation and head of the Geneva Internet Platform.

According to him, Internet governance tackles 40-50 specific issues, with relevance of particular issues changing over time as technology and information society evolve. He sorts them into five large ‘baskets’: infrastructure and standardisation, legal, economic, development, and socio-cultural.

While the Internet’s digital infrastructure and technical functions are based on universal standards, there is no government, corporation or UN agency in control of the whole thing

All these have policy implications for governments. Lawrence Lessig, an academic at Harvard Law School and a thought leader in this area, has cautioned that modern society may end up being regulated by software code instead of legal rules. Ultimately, some functions of parliaments and governments could de facto be taken over by computer companies and software developers. If and when this happens, it would challenge the very base of political and legal basis of our societies.

On the other hand, how much of the heavy hand of governments should be allowed to set the rules in cyber space? Authoritarian governments, which resent the Internet’s openness, have been clamouring for the UN’s International Telecommunications Union (ITU) to take over the Domain Naming System (DNS), one of the Internet’s most important components. But so far, the US, the UK, Canada and Australia have successfully resisted this move.

At least for the moment, governments sit alongside other stakeholders in evolving Internet governance policies and practices. Some corporate players attending UN-IGFs are formidable. It includes what Farhad Manjoo, a technology writer with The New York Times, has called the tech world’s ‘Frightful Five’: Alphabet (parent company of Google), Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft.

These companies had a strong presence In Guadalajara, as did several developed and developing country governments (such as Brazil, Malaysia, Mexico and South Africa). Sri Lanka had no official presence, even though civil society and the academic communities had several participants.

Why does Internet governance matter for Sri Lanka? Since we have enough governance challenges in the physical world, should we leave cyber governance for others to resolve?

That would be ill-advised. With around 30% of Sri Lanka’s 21 million people using the Internet in 2016, it is no longer the elite or urban medium it once was. We need to confront issues arising from our increasingly Internet-connected society and economy.

Sadly, public discussions on the Internet’s impacts are often lopsided. There is a small but vocal anti-Internet lobby demanding ‘strict regulations’, including the blocking of websites and even entire platforms. Public discussions about the web and digital media easily get polarised between those who uncritically embrace and others who habitually demonise anything modern. Social media has become the favourite whipping boy of self-appointed guardians of culture. Calls for ‘regulating’ social media often come from those who have no firsthand experience using Facebook, Twitter or any other such platform.

Many Lankan sociologists hesitate to study socio-cultural impacts of new media – probably out of a (misplaced) fear of such issues being ‘too technical’. IT engineers and other ‘techies’, meanwhile, are not too concerned with what ripple effects their work creates. Debates will remain shallow and shrilly unless we have empirical data. I have been calling for more evidence-based public debates before any new laws or regulations are adopted concerning the Internet. We must guard against populism and hysteria pushing policymakers to restrict freedom of expression online.

That does not mean we turn a blind eye to current and emerging problems. These include cyber-bullying, hate speech, identity theft through account hijacking, trolling (deliberately offensive or provocative online postings) and sexting (sending and receiving sexually explicit messages, primarily via mobile phones). Some civil society groups have been monitoring and documenting these phenomena. We can build on their insights to collectively evolve measured responses to the Internet’s mixed blessings.

Like many other modern technologies and media, navigating the web and digital tools involves a careful balancing of personal and societal interests. What we need is cautious engagement, not blind rejection. Living in denial of cyber hazards won’t take us forward. On the other hand, overstating the dangers and forcing bans or blocks can push our society back to the feudal ages—when knowledge was monopolised (by elites and clergy) and free expression deprived.

We can and must shape the new cyber frontier to be safer and more inclusive. But a safer web experience would lose its meaning if the heavy hand of government or social orthodoxy tries to make it a sanitised, lame or sycophantic environment. We don’t need a cyber nanny state.

In my view, enlightened, light-touch regulation, coupled with enhanced cyber literacy, is the pathway to a better digital future. Before filling the laws’ gaps for better protection, we must debate what is being proposed for our own good.

[The Internet Society Sri Lanka chapter is organising a national Internet Governance Forum during 2017. Watch out for details at: www.igf.lk]