Some Thoughts on Governance and a "Responsible" Internet

I never submitted the whole system of my opinions to the creed of any party of men whatever, in religion, in philosophy, in politics or in anything else, where I was capable of thinking for myself. Such an addiction is the last degradation of a free and moral agent. If I could not go to Heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all.
    -- Thomas Jefferson, 1789

I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves, and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise that control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion.
    -- Thomas Jefferson, 1820
I wrote,
>Im all for optimism, but the enhancements can only come from
>netizens, not Netizen, Inc. The fundamental democratic process is
>nothing more or less than this: that as we speak, we are educating
>somebody, somewhere. Thus isnt the issue whether one *asserts
>responsibility for one's acts, or reneges?
Having offered the latter prospect, it is only appropriate to present the former as well. What are the implications of assertion, when the temporal and geographical limitations that have conditioned culture up to now have been removed?

One might start with the phone book. I live in Annapolis Valley, where a single volume serves a dozen communities. When I want to talk to someone, I look up their number -- but the book is not organized by number, or even by phone exchange, but alphabetically by town, and then by subscriber's name. That is, I have to *enter the list with certain information -- where the person lives -- which is essentially `meta-,' having nothing to do with establishing the `real' connection.

Of course, this works fine for 99% of the residents -- why in the world, they might ask, would you want to talk to anyone whom you didnt know, at least to that geographical extent? But Im a relative stranger, and my truck broke down the other day. At a service station, I got the name and number of a repair garage, and we were soon under way to get new tie rod ends. As the driver and I talked, I realized we were about to pass my house, and he realized that at 4pm Ruby wasnt likely to get fixed that day anyhow, so he dropped me off and went on down the road. It was only then that I discovered I had lost the bit of paper with the number on it. I remember the name (because the station attendant had to struggle a bit to come up with it himself) but I didnt know *where to find my truck, except "somewhere west of here"!

This is, I submit, a paradigm case of `old-fashioned' data management. By relying on `boundaries' of knowledge, simple `flat-file' indexes are all one needs to operate within those limits. But in the brave new cybernetic world, "of course" no longer has meaning; there is no course because there are no bounds, no `neighbourhood' in which `everybody knows Joe,' no limit to the `ways' one does things.

And yet, and yet... we *always operate by boundary conditions. `Metes and bounds' is synonymous with land surveying; bounders are folk who overstep propriety. (The connection to bounty -- goodness -- is obscure, but it would make a nice parallel to the `binding together' of religion). Civilization rests on `right' and `proper' and `decent' and `respectable' and `orderly' and `fitting' *patterns of behaviour; how is one to get along with this gaping hole in the fabric -- a hole which furthermore seems to have no limits either, as it pervades every field of work and study and recreation and entertainment? The `information society' is acclaimed as the acme of efficiency; can it be that *human society is intrinsically arbitrary and inefficient? Is the sorcerer's new-fangled broom about to sweep away the entire house, ramshackle though it may be?

This is the nightmare which drove the CDA in 1996 and currently impels Sen Alston of Australia to dictate codes of acceptable practice for ISPs. It moves WIPO to advise ICANN that it should act to restrain `cybersquatting' (the registration of recognizable domain names in expectation of selling them to others who feel more `entitled' to them, whether by having registered it as a mark of trade or by virtue of its being attached to a `famous' person or place), and many others to install `net nannies' to limit access to certain web sites. That obvious issues of rights of free speech and personal privacy are involved carries no more weight than the fact that trademark law is explicitly premissed on geographical and product limitations; we will happily leave the burden of proof to the injured parties if only we can protect our righteous boundaries against injury first. Force majeure is winning over democracy, and although there are vague feelings that that's not how it was supposed to work, no one quite remembers how democracy *did work, either. (Isnt there somebody in charge who will tell us?)

In sum, thhe proper response to obsolete law is not more patchwork law. While governance consists of setting limits, objectively and conceptually, their legitimacy rests on public agreement to be ourselves bound by rules of law. When those rules fail (as rules always do, despite the high ideals they may embody), there is no sticking point short of individual assertion of allegiance from which to build them up again. If that means upgrading the public skill set to include relational and dynamic modes of data management -- that is, to make contextually relevant decisions, just as we trust our experts and professionals to do, then so be it. The phone book is not the only model we can learn to live by.

It may be a house of cards that we live in, but one should not be aghast at its collapse; rather, relish the opportunity to practice the fine art of communication with ones neighbours. The skill may prove useful when real disaster strikes.

Ruby, by the way, is home again, safe and sound. A very kind woman took only a minute to identify where the workshop must be.


Posted to Universal Access-Canada 6 May 1999.

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