Category Archives: policy

Footage from the workshop on core Internet values

With a slight delay, I would like to share video footage of the workshop I organized at the last IGF in Vilnius.  This is the same workshop for which I was seeking your input about a month and a half ago.

The full title of the workshop is “Core Internet values and the principles of Internet Governance across generations” and the idea is exactly that – to have a dialogue between Internet pioneers and young Internet activists on the core of what the Internet stands for.

We had a great group of people.  On the one hand, there were young people from different parts of the world.  On the other hand, there were more senior Internet thinkers and practitioners.  Here is the full list of participants (in alphabetical order):

  • Bill Graham, Global Strategic Engagement, the Internet Society (ISOC)
  • ‘Gbenga Sesan, Paradigm New Nigeria
  • Drew Smith, Student at Elon Univeristy and participant in Imagining the Internet project
  • Grace Bomu, Young Kenyan lawyer, secretary of the ICT Consumers Association of Kenya, and cultural activist
  • Laura DeNardis, Yale Information Society Project
  • Marie Casey, Elected female representative at the ITU Youth Forum of future leaders, Geneva, 2009
  • Nii Narku Quaynor, Ghana.com
  • Rafik Dammak, Tokyo University
  • Vinton G. Cerf, vice president and chief Internet evangelist for Google
  • Vladimir Radunovic, Diplo Foundation

Ian Peter, who chaired the last year workshop on Internet Governance, was also supposed to take part in the workshop, but unfortunately he was not able to make it to Vilnius.

I hoped to be able to share a report from the workshop here, but other tasks take priority at the moment and I will be posting the report later.  I do think we had a very interesting and lively discussion, so I thought at this point I will just share the video footage of the event.  If you have a couple of hours to spare, I think you will find this engaging.

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As always, your thoughts and comments are most welcome!

Is it the time to lobby?

It’s been quiet on this blog for a while, so I decided to share an observation based on some conversations I recently had at one of the Internet governance meetings.  The conversations were about ICT companies and the point was that while Western companies are extremely enthusiastic about emerging markets, they do not consider their regulatory systems with the same rigor as they do in the developed world.  In other words, while in the developed countries these companies invest considerable resources in working with the governments and lobbying, in the developing countries their efforts are primarily in marketing.  Even when they do work with governments, it is mostly done through the marketing departments where the governments are viewed primarily as costumers, less as regulators.

I heard similar observations from a number of industry players and also from a government official.  I listened and “filed” these observations, but they were  brought back to life with the recent explosion of the BlackBerry story.  You may know that the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and now also India and a number of other countries, are threatening to ban BlackBerry unless RIM allows them access to the encrypted email data of BlackBerry users, stored on the company’s servers.  India gave RIM an ultimatum until the end of the month to comply and the rumor is that the Indian government has similar plans for Google, Skype, and perhaps others.

I wonder how did RIM find itself in such a situation?  Will other global technological companies find themselves in a similar situation soon too?  Peter Svensson writes in Washington Post today:

“Threats by the governments of India, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia to shut down BlackBerry’s corporate e-mail services reflect unease about a technology that the U.S. government also took a while to accept.  The foreign governments are essentially a decade behind in coming to terms with encryption, a technology that’s fundamental to the Internet as a medium of commerce. (…) RIM, the company behind the BlackBerry, doesn’t have years to wait for foreign governments to adopt the more relaxed U.S. stance toward encryption.”

I assume Svensson is right about his historical perspective; after all, writing about this is his bread an butter.  At the same time, given that all the governments currently having an issue with BlackBerry are in developing countries, I think he is missing the point made by the people I talked to about the Western companies’ attitudes to the emerging markets’ governments.

It did not take the US government years to figure out its stand on encryption on its own.  On the contrary, this position is a result of years of dialogue, argument, and debates between the government and the various interest groups, primarily the industry, through its lobbying activities, and the civil society.  We can see a similar discussion taking place these days around the issue of net neutrality.

It seems to me that until the RIMs, Googles, and Skypes of this world won’t take the regulators in the developing world as seriously as they take the governments back home, we will continue seeing more “BlackBerry” cases.  Until the multinational MICT companies will not engage in a meaningful  way with the local governments in the emerging markets, the barriers to their activities there will continue growing and become more sophisticated, especially when it comes to such a politicized area as information.

So, I wonder if it is the time for these companies to start lobbying in the developing world just the way they are lobbying here.  While I am aware of the potentially harmful influences of lobbying, it is an integral part of the policymaking mechanism and, for better or worse, it also has an educational impact on the policymakers.  At the end of the day, usually those are the governments that are catching up with technology, while the industry is ahead of the curve.

What do you think?  Is it the time to lobby?

On discourse and shaping of the information society

There was a very interesting talk at the Berkman Center back in January.  Julie Cohen, a law professor from Georgetown University, talked about her upcoming book “The Networked Self: Copyright, Privacy, and the Production of Networked Space.”

What I found particularly interesting about this talk is her attempt to introduce sociological literature into a predominantly legal debate.  Her point of departure is the gap between the rhetoric of law and policy aimed at shaping the information society and the realities on the ground.  For example, she points at the language of economic liberties as fueling the information society governance debate, but at the same time there are laws and regulations that significantly restrict those liberties being that through strong copyright or weak individual privacy protections.  She also highlights that while the policy discourse is usually abstract, the individual’s interpretation of the law and his or her interaction with information and technology is very concrete and situated in a particular physical reality.  Although she focuses on the policy debate in the US, I think her framework can be helpful in thinking about discourse and policymaking elsewhere.

Reaching across the disciplinary isle is not a trivial task and during Cohen’s talk at Berkman it was interesting to see how, during the Q&A, the lawyers in the room took her presentation to different directions from where I think it would go has she been giving her talk in a Communication or an STS departments.  Yet, I think she did a very good job linking the abstract thinking of sociologists about the concrete actions of people to the concrete thinking of the legal scholars about the abstract concepts of the law.  I view it is a part of a very important interdisciplinary dialogue we should have in the field and on purely selfish grounds it helps me to think about communicating the relevance of my dissertation research to the more “hard core” policy debate.

You are invited to watch the talk as well as to read its coverage on Ethan Zuckerman’s, David Weinberger’s, and John Palfrey’s blogs.  In addition, I found a recent paper written by Julie Cohen, which provides an outline of her book (in case you don’t have the time to watch the video).

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Enjoy!

Our modern Babel?

I wonder what do people think about the potential repercussions of the introduction of IDNs, particularly in terms of fragmentation of the Internet.  In this post I provide some background about the languages on the web, some of my thoughts, and finally questions for which I would love to hear your thoughts.

After many years of debates, International Domain Names (IDNs) have finally become more tangible with the announcement of the Fast Track by ICANN earlier this year.  Right now it is open only to states and territories recognized in the ISO 3166-1 regulation.  A number of countries have already applied for registering their Internet country suffixes in their local languages (IDN ccTLDs).  For example, Egypt announced that they are going to register “.مصر”, which stands for Egypt in Arabic, and Russia started the registration process for “.рф,” which stands for Russian Federation.

Overall, introduction of the IDNs has been met with a lot of enthusiasm.  In the last ICANN meeting in Seol and at the last IGF this was celebrated as the final internationalization of the Internet.  The minister of communication of Egypt was quoted saying that the “Internet now speaks Arabic” and the European Union has also declared that they are going to allow registration of .eu in all 23 official languages of the Union.  People are celebrating the diversity.

At the same time, as expected, not everybody is excited about this development.  It is widely held that the primary opposition to IDNs has been voiced by the trademarks holders.  After sort of figuring out how to protect their trademarks in the current, Roman script dominated, cyberspace (such as the Uniform Domain-Name Dispute-Resolution Policy), they are not particularly psyched about the need to do it again in dozens of other languages and potentially under dozens of other regulatory regimes.

However, not only the trademarks holders are not excited about the new IDNs.  There are also those, who voice concerns about fragmentation of the Internet as a result of adoption of domain names that would be accessible only to speakers of a particular language.  Dwayne Bailey, Research Director of the African Network for Localisation, spoke at the IGF about the danger of monolingual silos or as he put it: “A multilingual world of mono-lingualism.”  Karine Barzliai Nahon wrote a post on this topic, addressing particularly the situation in Israel, but alluding to similar concerns.  I personally had thoughts along the same lines when I first heard about the idea of IDNs and we can find similar arguments even at the very beginning of the debate about IDNs (for example here).

From where I stand as a user of the Internet (and I think most of the people who read those lines share this position), the Internet emerges as this enormous modern (knowledge and information) Tower of Babel.  There is so much information out there and it all is accessible to me at my laptop – all I need to do is to type a query in the search engine or enter a URL.  This is possible primarily because I feel at ease with both the technology and the English language.

Even though English is not the only language online, we can still access most of the content in English.  As some of the stats suggest, in 2008 only 31% of the online content was in English and that percentage was shrinking.  Chinese accounted for 20% and Spanish for 7%.  Between 2000 and 2008, the amount of content in Arabic grew 2064%, in Chinese 755%, and in Portuguese 668%.  However, even if the content itself is in a language that I do not understand, there are automatic translators that are good enough to allow me understanding, and maybe even engaging with, materials in languages other than those that I know.  All I need is to enter a URL of a website into an automatic translator, and here it is at my fingertips.  Isn’t it wonderful?

The “danger” of IDNs thus is fragmentation of content and as a result fragmentation of the Internet itself.  If I am unable to type in a URL of a website I won’t be able to access it, even before I reach the point where I need a translation.  The result could be that different cultural groups will isolate themselves by using the language barrier and we might lose the wealth of information that is out there.  This would be an equivalent of what happened to the Biblical Tower of Babel when all the different languages were introduced – the tower fell.  Our modern (knowledge and information) Tower of Babel might fall as well.

These were some of my initial thoughts and these are the concerns voiced by others as well.  However, the more I think about it the less categorical picture emerges.  Here are some of my more recent thoughts:

  • To start with, it is not clear how much attention people pay to the URLs and there is quite a lot of research out there showing that people don’t use URLs for web navigation that much.  I think this is a major point in our thinking about the “threat” and “benefits” of IDNs.  I am not at all convinced that URLs matter.
  • Second, I am not sure how much people in fact consume content that is not in languages that they know.  I mean, it may well be that the content online is already segregated and having internationalized URLs will not change much.  I have yet met a native English speaker who was a regular reader of websites in Russian or Chinese (I see a lot of the opposite, but not that).
  • Third, I think it is reasonable to assume that just as we have automatic translators that allow browsing entire websites in languages other than those that we know, there will be a technological solution that will make the URLs just as transparent.
  • Same goes for keyboards.  If we will insist on typing the URLs, virtual or projection keyboards can allow having an unlimited number of scripts on a single keyboard.  In fact, in this kind of technical solutions, I do believe in letting the markets speak and if there is enough demand for IDNs and enough demand for bypassing the IDNs, the technical solutions will appear.
  • Also, as the rhetoric of IDNs suggests, they are aimed not at people who are already online and are comfortable with English, but at those who for various reasons, are not online yet and for whom English is a barrier.  It is easy for us to talk about potential loss of our access to the (dare I say underutilized) wealth of information from a position of relative power.  It is quite different for those who do not have any access at all.
  • Finally, it may be natural that we do not understand all the content that is out there.  After all this is how our society became as diverse as it is.  Moreover the effort we need to put into learning and understanding another culture makes the experience even more rewarding.  So, maybe the IDNs are just a natural development?

My bottom line is that while I do share some concerns regarding the IDNs’ potential contribution to the fragmentation of the Internet, I am not at all convinced that this is what will necessarily happen.  Of course, one can think of scenarios where some governments force registration of local domains in a particular language, but even in that case, I am not sure it will work.  Similarly, I am not 100% sure that English is the main barrier to access and effective use of the Web.  I think there are other barriers such as lack of physical infrastructure or lack of technical literacy.  But perhaps more than ever before I think this is a case where we should let the users of the Internet make up their minds whether they want to use internationalized domain names or not.  The history suggests that the currently connected won’t do it, but perhaps the 6 billions of those who are not connected will.

These are some of my thoughts on the subject.  What do you think?  Will IDNs cause further fragmentation of the Internet?  Or will they increase the diversity of the content online and make the Web more accessible?

Reading “Delete”

I wanted to post reflections on various readings here before, but never got to it.  This is my first attempt.  I just finished reading “Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age” by Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, who is directing the I+I Centre where I am spending this semester.  The book tackles the phenomenon of digital remembering, its potential social repercussions, and ways to address those.  On the publisher’s website it says that the book:

“…looks at the surprising phenomenon of perfect remembering in the digital age, and reveals why we must reintroduce our capacity to forget. Digital technology empowers us as never before, yet it has unforeseen consequences as well…  In Delete, Viktor Mayer-Schönberger traces the important role that forgetting has played throughout human history, from the ability to make sound decisions unencumbered by the past to the possibility of second chances. The written word made it possible for humans to remember across generations and time, yet now digital technology and global networks are overriding our natural ability to forget–the past is ever present, ready to be called up at the click of a mouse. Mayer-Schönberger examines the technology that’s facilitating the end of forgetting–digitization, cheap storage and easy retrieval, global access, and increasingly powerful software–and describes the dangers of everlasting digital memory, whether it’s outdated information taken out of context or compromising photos the Web won’t let us forget. He explains why information privacy rights and other fixes can’t help us, and proposes an ingeniously simple solution–expiration dates on information–that may.”

However, I think the book talks more about issues of information control and management, where forgetting is an important mechanism that allows the users to exercise their agency in an environment, which is becoming more and more information-intensive. The first half of the book is dedicated to setting the stage. It is a rather detailed and rich account of the history of the contemporary information environment particularly print, evolution of the memory devices and information storage, and development of information governance institutions (defined in broader terms) such as copyright. While I was aware of some of the stories, many of them were rather new to me. For example, did you know that the subject index, as an alphabetical list of topics covered in a book, was introduced in thirteenth century, but the idea of adding page numbers to the index to ease the actual navigation was added only in the sixteenth century? Quite interesting.

DeleteCoverTelling this history Mayer-Schönberger draws a picture of ever growing body of information about us, as individual members of society, and the way we may interact with it, even if in an indirect way. One of his favorite examples is the story of Stacy Snyder who was denied her teaching certificate because of a picture she had posted on MySpace of her dressed as a drunken pirate. The gist of the argument, if I read it correctly, is that while it becomes easier and cheaper to collect and store information about us and our behavior, we, as individuals, are losing more and more control over that information (once you or somebody else posts your picture online, you no longer have control over where it may appear, who may see it, and in what context). He labels it in terms of remembering and forgetting – if in the past it was difficult and costly to remember and easy and cheap to forget, this balance has reversed.

These days it is so easy and cheap to remember that we start losing our ability to forget. The repercussions of this development are that the accessible, durable, and comprehensive digital record of our past directly impacts the way we conduct and make decisions in the present. For example, I know that once this post will be published, it will become a permanent record of my take on “Delete”. Knowing that, I should probably be very careful with what I say about it, because it may impact my future interaction not just with Viktor (with whom I am currently working), but also with other potential readers of this post. I may choose to self censor myself, to present a biased view, or abstain from publishing it altogether. The point is that my behavior today is guided by the uncertainty about the future uses of this information – on the one hand I know it is there to stay, probably attached to my name, but on the other hand, I have no idea who, when, and under what circumstances will use and interpret this post.

To better understand this idea, I think it is helpful to focus on some aspects of socio-psychological functioning of information, which Mayer-Schönberger discusses in length in the book. One of those aspects is interpretation. The bits and bytes in themselves do not mean much, unless we interpret them (similar to the idea of data in knowledge management). It is through interpretation that the information gains meaning and thus also social functions. This leads to another important aspect, which is context. In different contexts we will interpret the same information differently and this is one of the dangers of digitized memory – information is recorded in a certain time and in a given context, but when it gets retrieved at a different time and in a different context, it will likely have different meaning. Thus we are losing control over the interpretation and meaning of the digital information about us and our behavior. When we, as individuals, are losing control over the information, we are becoming powerless compared to other actors (like the state and the corporate world) who have the capacity to collect, store, and retrieve information about us, thus making them even more powerful (they know more about us than we know about them and they control the interpretation process of information about us). Another aspect of this is the negation of time, which threats our ability to make rational decision in the present. Instead of focusing on the big picture, we are focusing on managing the mundane details of our lives, because those are recorded and stored and will have impact on us in the future.

The shift of control over information and negation of time are at the heart of Mayer-Schönberger’s concern with digital remembering. The rest the book is dedicated to analysis of potential responses to this concern and finally a proposal of an alternative solution. The book lists six different potential responses, each addresses either the power or the time aspect of digital remembering on one of the three levels: individual, law, and technology. The six solutions are digital abstinence, information privacy rights, digital privacy rights (sort of a DRM for personal information), cognitive adjustment, information ecology, and perfect contextualization. Each one of the approaches has its merits, but each one also has its drawbacks either at the conceptual or practical levels.

Mayer-Schönberger suggests expiration date for information as his solution to the negative effects of digital remembering. On the face of it, this is a rather straight forward idea – we need a piece of meta-data attached to each bit of information, which will determine how long this bit of information should be retained. Of course, his suggestion is much more nuanced and he goes into various scenarios of different ways in which information can be forgotten or partially forgotten, but I hope my one-line explanation carries over the gist of the argument. Mayer-Schönberger acknowledges in his book that expiration date addresses the time-related aspect of digital remembering, but it does little at the “power” front. In fact, the “power” is supposedly influenced indirectly, as by allowing automatic deletion of information the powerful side in the interaction is giving up some of its powers (if my power stems from having information about you and being able to mine it for my purposes, giving up the control over when this information is deleted, is equivalent to giving up part of my power).

I think that the main weakness of the expiration date argument lies not in the fact that it focuses primarily on the “time” aspect of the issue, but in the fact that it puts great hopes into the agency of the user. The idea of expiration dates gives user the power to decide for each and every piece of information how long they want to retain it. However, I am still slightly skeptical whether the user will use that power, because it comes with a cost. This idea assumes that (1) people want to make a decision about each bit of information they process and (2) they are capable of estimating the usable time span of each and every bit. I am not sure that people are that zealous about managing their information and are that thoughtful about the future prospects of its use. Just imagine if you had to decide for each one of the 300 pictures from your last trip, how long you want to retain it… wouldn’t it be easier just to keep them all? … just in case?

However, I think the main task of “Delete” is not offering a practical solution (that may be better done through establishing a startup :), but undertaking a rather ambitious conceptual and educational task – bringing the idea of “finitness of information” (p.171) into the public consciousness.  There may be numerous socio-technical solution to the negative effects of digital remembering, but you need a well stated argument to start thinking in that direction.  I think this is what “Delete” is trying to achieve.

Here is also Viktor’s talk about the book at Berkman, just about a month and a half ago (caution: it is rather long – over an hour):

October 1, 2009

Originally, I planned to post about this before the actual date, but as it often happens, priorities got in the way and here I am now, reflecting on things post factum.  So, what happened on October 1, 2009 to deserve a blog post?

September 30th was the expiration date of the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU)/Joint Project Agreement (JPA) between ICANN and the US Department of Commerce.  This special arrangement between the US Government and the pivotal organization in the Internet Governance came under a lot of criticism over the years and has generated calls for greater transparency, oversight, and internationalization of ICANN, with an overarching  theme of increasing participation of various stakeholders being those governments or the civil society.

Initially, the MOU was supposed to last for three years, but it ended up being used for eleven.  Nominally, under the MOU, the only body that could review ICANN’s activity was the US Government.  At least in theory, this oversight gave the US Government direct control over ICANN, despite the rhetoric of bottom-up decision making and multistakeholderism.  In practice, I am not sure how much direct control was actually exercised; it seems that most influence came through soft power and ICANN made numerous efforts to increase transparency and international participation in its activities.

The big change offered by the Affirmation of Commitments (AOC), which was signed yesterday, is that it replaces the earlier agreement and exposes ICANN to public oversight.  As Rod Beckstrom, the CEO and the President of ICANN, wrote in an op-ed in the Guardian: “We are entering a new era of coordination, not control – where the internet is governed by you, the users.”  Well, at least nominally.  According to the AOC, the different aspects of ICANN’s activities will have to be reviewed, at least every three years, by a various committees where the US Government will have only one sit, together with other representatives of the ICANN community.

Overall, the announcement of the AOC and the first round of responses was surrounded by rhetoric of independence and further internationalization of ICANN.  BBC News wrote that “US relaxes grip on the internet,”  Guardian titled their item: “US relinquishes control of the internet,” and  “Internet News” announced that “U.S. Cedes ICANN Control to the World” (other outlets had similar titles).  On the ICANN’s website, there is an entire collection of responses from industry leaders and politicians from all over the world, who solute the AOC.  Some of the US newspapers were a bit more critical.  The PC World published an article titled: “U.S. Loosens Grip On ICANN, Domain Chaos To Follow?” where they discuss ICANN’s intentions to introduce new top level domains and domains in non-Latin characters.  However, the overwhelming majority of responses are applauding the supposed independence.

More specifically, the independence stems from the fact that the review of ICANN’s activity will be no longer conducted by the DOC, but by a committee of supposedly independent experts and will be also put out online for public comments.  That is again, nominally.  In fact, there are reasons to question the independent character of this committee.  As Ian Douglas of the Telegraph notes, members of these committees will still come from the ICANN circles, thus implying little change in the character of the oversight.  Milton Muller adds to it by highlighting that people who are going to be reviewed by the committee, i.e. the ICANN management, are those who are responsible for nomination of committee members.  According to AOC, the CEO of ICANN and the Chair of the Government Advisory Group (GAC) are those who appoint the review committee members.

The other aspect highlighted in the AOC and in the responses to it is the private sector leadership.  Even though there is literature suggesting otherwise, the commonly held perception, especially in the diplomatic circles, was that the US Government is leading ICANN.  In practice, again, there were much more shades of gray and the industry played an important role in steering ICANN in particular directions (Milton refers to this as well in his review of AOC).  In the current arrangement, the governments are getting a heavier say in the process.  Even if they are not formally in a decision-making position, they are now in a position where they directly involved in setting the parameters of the discourse and who is getting the stage.

Personally, I still find it difficult to see beyond the rhetoric of independence and internationalization at the moment.  While this is presented as an important step, it remains to be seen how significant the actual change is going to be, particularly in terms of public participation in ICANN’s activity.  One of the points that struck me in the interview Rod Beckstrom gave to the NPR, was him equating public participation to the participation of the governments.  Indeed, this is the view held by many States that were eager to have a more significant say on issues of Internet Governance; the rhetoric there is that governments are representatives of their people and they know the best how to take care of their people’s interests.  While this may be acceptable in some cases and in some cultures, it is definitely not a homogeneous take.  I doubt that many people affiliated with the civil society or civil rights activists, particularly in places that do not excel on that front, will agree with that equation.

I think the affirmation, even though it represents a somewhat expected compromise, is a positive step and the rhetoric surrounding it is encouraging.  However we still have to wait and see if the actions will align with the rhetoric and whether October 1, 2009 will be remembered as a pivotal date in the history of Internet Governance.  Moreover, this step makes the upcoming Internet Governance Forum particularly interesting and I wonder what kind of effect this announcement will have on its agenda.  I guess we will see the first signs tomorrow at IGF-USA that will take place in Washington DC.

Apply for ICANN fellowship!

If you are interested in the Internet Governance issues (or even more generally in the politics of the Internet) and you live in a low income to upper-middle income economy, you should definitely apply for ICANN fellowship to attend one of their meetings.

I have recently discovered ICANN dashboard, which allows you a glimpse over their various statistics.  As you can see in the chart below, as long as you meet their qualifications, your chances of being accepted are rather high.  For example, in the last round of fellowships there were 33 qualified entries and all of them got funded.  Meeting the qualifications criteria is the greatest barrier to entry for this fellowship and it is not completely clear to me how so many unqualified people apply.  From reading the fellowship conditions, the two basic criteria are your citizenship and having at least some relevant experience.

ICANNfellowship

Unfortunately, I don’t have more details about this opportunity other than what is available on their website.  Nevertheless, and regardless of what you may think about ICANN and its role in the regulation of Internet, it seems like an interesting chance to observe the process of Internet policy deliberation in real time.  The next ICANN meeting will take place in Seoul, Korea, 25-30 October 2009, however at this point you can only apply for the following meeting to be held in Nairobi, Kenya on 7-12 March 2010.  The fellowship applications window for that meeting is September 28 to November 6, 2009.  Good luck!

P.S. The underlying logic of limiting fellowship eligibility to people from developing countries is completely understandable, but it would be great if ICANN could at least link to other resources, which are open to people from the rest of the world.

Governance, gardening, and structuration

I truly hope that I am not becoming like in that saying “when all you have is hammer, everything looks like a nail,” but I do feel that I observe more and more implicit references to the Theory of Structuration.  Earlier this week, I started a semester long fellowship at the Information + Innovation Policy Research Center in the School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore and as part of getting familiar with the center’s activities I finished reading a report from a conference organized by the head of the Center, Viktor Mayer-Schönberger.

The conference, named after a place in Switzerland, called the Rueschlikon Conference on Information Policy in the New Economy.  It is a gathering of a small group of policymakers, industry leaders, and academics, who come together to discuss issues related to information governance.  The meeting in 2007 was dedicated to issues of information governance and the report, compiled by Ken Cukier, is titled “Governance as Gardening“.  Behind this metaphor stands a number of observations, particularly:

“In the past states regulated domestically, and international accords were sought.  But because technology advances quickly, states cannot keep up. So new, non-governmental mechanisms and institutions to govern information globally are taking shape. As online communities evolve, they establish their own norms and practices: the rules are emergent. Ironically, the rules are shaped by the community, but the properties of those communities are shaped by the rules” (emphasis added)

and consequently:

“Rather than something something that can be known at the outset, implemented and followed with minor adjustments, regulation must constantly evolve, adapting to new environment. In this respect, we need to think of information governance as ‘gardening’ rather than ‘engineering.’  This is not new in nature, but novel in scope and pace, for which today’s agents, mechanisms and institutions are unprepared.”

What I see in this observation is the realization of the duality of policymaking processes. Quoting from my dissertation proposal:

“…the policymakers react to unintended consequences created by diffusion and adoption of new technology and at the same time they set the agenda and provide guidance for future technological developments that impact social structures and institutions.”

As it is mentioned in the last sentence, these dynamics are not new, but they were made more vivid due to the growing dominance of information technology, or in other words, attempts to systematize processes of communication.  Not surprisingly, this duality is the most visible in the area of information governance, where the matter of regulation is an inherent component of the processes of policymaking itself.  As Cukier writes at some point:

“… there is a paradox behind the governance of information: rather than learn the rules and play the game, we need to play the game to learn the rules”

Even though I think the report sometimes delves into semi-deterministic arguments (see the first quote  above), and as such neglects the duality of technology itself, it is really exciting to see that a conversation between practitioners and researchers yields observations similar to what is going to be at the basis of my dissertation.  Moreover, they used Internet Governance as one of the prominent examples where such duality of policymaking is taking place.

Beware of the Skypzzz!

Rhetoric has been always a very powerful tool in promoting both policy and business agendas.  Russian telcos are now putting the old-good argument of security in promoting legislation that may allow them to succeed where their European and other colleagues have failed.

DevilishSkypeIt seems that all around the world the telcos feel threatened by Voice over IP (VoIP) applications that run on their infrastructure and offer free of charge voice services, with Skype being an iconic example*.  Only recently, the European telecos tried to argue for unfair competition and asked to discriminate against the use of VoIP on their networks.  The European Commission took a firm stand against it arguing for principles of net-neutrality also on mobile networks.  In the US AT&T, together with Apple, work against VoIP applications such as Skype and Google Voice to be used on the iPhones.  It will be now up to the FCC to take a stand on that issue.  Finally, the Israeli leading mobile service provider, Cellecom, is also seeking ways of limiting its users’ access to VoIP and some other technologies, under the slogan of “quality of service.”  The Israeli Ministry of Communication actually took a pro net neutrality stand in this case, but the argument is still going on.

In Russia, however, the local industry decided to make the long story short and instead of appealing to amorphous concepts such as “fairness” in competition or “quality of service” it turned to a more basic instinct – fear.  According to this article, Russian telcos have warned the Kremlin that:

“…the foreign-made VoIP software, easily downloaded from the Internet, is a threat to national security because it is resistant to eavesdropping by Russia’s intelligence agencies.”

To make things a bit spicier, they also added some nationalism.  The lobbying group was quoted saying that:

“The majority of brands operating in Russia, such as Skype and Icq, are of foreign origin and therefore we need to ensure the defense of national producers in this sector”

While some civil rights activists are concerned with the state openly talking about spying on people, others view it a bit more pragmatically.  In a recent hearing on the subject it was estimated that in about 3 years 40% of voice traffic in Russia will be VoIP.  This creates a significant incentive for the industry to cooperate on legislation that “will bring order” to the VoIP market.  Indeed such an effort is currently underway in Russia.

There was limited, but critical reaction on this topic in the mainstream Russian media and  even the blogsphere reacted only on the margines; some expressed concerns, others healthy sarcasm.  I wonder though, if conversations about VoIP are going on in other countries as well, and if so, what arguments are made against and for it.

* Disclamer – I use Skype and, to the most part, like it.