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<nettime> esther dyson: "let the people rule" (aspen vs. geneva)
geert lovink on Thu, 8 Jan 2004 06:14:10 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> esther dyson: "let the people rule" (aspen vs. geneva)


The Accountable Net
by Esther Dyson

Talk of Internet governance is in the air. The recent United
Nations-sponsored World Summit on the Information Society, held in Geneva,
issued a statement saying that "authority for Internet-related public policy
issues is the sovereign right of States." It concludes by calling for a
study that will make recommendations -- at the end of 2005.

For some of us, that's a rather long time. And government authority is the
wrong conclusion.

Taking place at the same time as the WSIS was a smaller and more productive
meeting of the Internet-policy working group at the Aspen Institute, a
nonprofit leadership organization. Through the miracles of modern
transportation (and despite a couple of snowstorms), I managed to take part
in both.


In Aspen, our small group of government, business and nonprofit folks
started with a more practical and urgent approach, considering three big
Internet problems (eschewing domain names, for once): spam, privacy and
overall security against viruses and other intrusions.

The approach we came up with is "the accountable Net" -- an Internet of
people, companies and services that are accountable to one another rather
than to some omniscient central authority. Many of the states contemplated
by the WSIS document are not completely democratic. And even if governments
were all as benign as we could wish, they cannot provide the kind of
flexible, responsive feedback to foster good behavior that we can provide
for ourselves.

The idea is simple: People on the Internet should be accountable to one
another, and they are free to decide whom to interact with. The goal is not
a free-for-all, anarchic Net, but one where good behavior is fostered
effectively -- and locally.

In the real world, good behavior is fostered by a combination of government
regulations and society standards. But the Internet is no longer the
community it once was. It has become too large for people to really know one

The solution is not necessarily more government, but rather more visibility
of the kind we used to have: People need to know one another, and they need
to be able to decide whom they want to know. (The new social networking
tools are one manifestation of this desire, but we also need to be able to
communicate safely with people we may not consider friends or business
partners, but whom we wouldn't shy away from on the street.)

The default anonymity of the Internet makes it easy for individuals to do
bad things -- send spam, invade people's privacy and send data around the
Net, launch viruses and other attacks. And that same anonymity makes it hard
to enforce laws against those actions, even as it preserves our freedom.

But the Internet's technology also makes it easier for individuals to
protect themselves: They can take their safety and privacy into their own
hands with tools such as firewalls and spam blockers. And, of course, on the
Internet, it's easier for people to get up and move to a virtual
neighborhood that they like better.


Sounds great, but how does it really work? What I'm proposing is not a
rule-free society, but one in which rules come from the bottom up: generally
enforced by peers, with governments in the background.

Nor is this a world of individuals only. There are other players: Internet
service providers, for example, who collect money from their customers, then
vouch for their behavior and deal with the more technical aspects of
Internet security and spam deterrence. Vendors of software also play a role.
They need to make their products more secure from such threats as viruses
and spam.

The basic rule is transparency: You need to know whom you are dealing with,
or be able to take proper measures to protect yourself. The accountable Net
is a complex system of interacting parts, where users answer not just to
some central authority, but to the people and organizations whom they

That keeps each person's Internet small enough to allow for individual
choice, but at the same time part of a whole large enough to sustain regimes
for various tastes. To the extent that one community's actions affect
another, each community can decide whether to interact.

To make this work, we need government at the back end, ready to prosecute
extreme cases of fraud and misrepresentation (as well as crimes such as
identity theft, antitrust violations and other traditionally offline
crimes). We also need a robust technical architecture, with effective means
for authentication of users where necessary, strong security for keeping
data and communications safe and effective systems for keeping track of
what's going on.

Note that the right to anonymity and freedom of speech can and must be
preserved, along with other people's freedom to ignore those speakers (and
the government's obligation to go after criminals). The default is to keep
out anyone or anything that might not be worthy of your trust -- but to
accept parties rated positively by the people you do trust. As in real life,
that amounts to a pretty broad circle.

We live in a complicated world, and there are no simple solutions. But there
is a simple approach: Keep control local to the extent possible, so that
people can take care of themselves. Give them powerful tools. Understand the
roles of government (central authority) and of the market (individual
choice), and that the strongest force lies between the two: society, where
people interact with one another.

Most people, given the choice, do want to interact constructively with other
people they trust. Let's create a world of accountability on a human level.
Online or offline, that's a worthy goal.

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