Geeks: Get Involved

The Internet has been a disruptor to business and soon, it will start being a disruptor to established government models. Here’s why geeks need to get involved.

What matters

To people living largely in the future, the internet obviously matters but increasingly, matters of governance and politics are starting to pop up on radars. Whether it is the current state of rebellions in the middle east and their aftermath, or discussions around freedom of the press, the first skirmishes of internet and the established political structures are starting to happen.

In 1997, with the landmark ACLU vs. Reno legal win in the United States, those of us who were involved thought we had done most of the work that was needed to avert some bad lawmaking on the internet. Because many of us were relatively young, we had confused success in an early battle with total victory and surrender from the established order. Over the years, though, fighting has continued and the incumbents have slowly been regaining ground and momentum.

Unfortunately, whether it is due to ignorance or arrogance, most of the tech community has been staying out of the many discussions related to government regulations. A small cadre of dedicated activists has tried to work on this or that issue but nothing has been done on a coordinated basis to establish a net-friendly view of the world in Washington DC.

Meanwhile, in countries outside of the US, more progressive governments have established some basic principles of internet governance: for example, Finland made 1Mb broadband Internet access a human right and I’ve heard from several sources that internet access will be written as a right under the new Egyptian constitution.

With that background, you’d assume the US would eventually move in the same direction. However, with little outrage in the online community, a bill to create an internet kill switch in the United States is currently making its way through congress.

Or take the discussions around Wikileaks. Much of the debate last year over the cable release seem to bring politicians and the popular opinion to the view that Wikileaks had broken US laws and done irreparable damage to the US State Department. Now three months later, charges still have not been brought against Wikileaks… and State department officials who looked into the damage done by wikileaks reported back to the US Congress that it had caused little real and lasting damage to American diplomacy. Meanwhile, the revelations highlighted in the Wikileaks documents have been credited as one of the elements that helped launched the recent rebellions across the middle east.

But once again, few geeks came to Wikileaks’ defense initially, and fewer yet are still involved in the freedom of the press discussions launched by the Wikileaks dump. Meanwhile, in an attack on government whistle-blowing, some US congressmen are working to ensure that publications similar to the Wikileaks one (or the Pentagon papers in the past) would become illegal. Once again, few computer geeks are involved.

Those are but a couple of examples of why individuals whose livelihood depend on the Internet need to get involved.

A changing landscape

My first experience with internet policy-making was forged through the Clinton years, when incredible individuals came together to establish basic levels of protection for the then nascent Internet industry. I was fortunate enough to be a fly on the wall for several of those events, hashing out such boring issues as tax classifications for goods and services sold on the internet.

Policy makers in the Clinton administration were, for the most part, relatively friendly. While I thought it was because they were believers in the potential of the internet, a more cynical analysis could highlight than those discussions were happening when the commercial Internet was still a relative novelty and did not seem threatening in any way shape or form to traditional models. Viewed through that lens, to toss a few crumbs to the internet crowd seemed like a no-brainer to governmental institutions, and opposition to such idea was non-existent because the stakes seemed so small to any traditional players that it wasn’t even worth fighting for.

Since then, of course, the internet has moved out of stealth mode, slaying a few established players along the way. Internet issues are no longer considered small potatoes by any industry. In fact, for many, they are the main issues. It is in that new climate that the future of the internet is being fought.

At the same time, the internet itself continues to expand. Only a few years ago, most people accessed the internet via a computer. Nowadays, an increasing portion of the population is starting to access the internet through mobile devices, running IP packet on the network of mobile operators who have looked at portion of their landline business being decimated by decisions they made in the 90s regarding letting the net. Back then, because they could not envision the net as becoming a major economic force, they agreed to giving anyone full access to it at a relatively low cost. The explosion in use put that unmetered access to the test and those players now want to reverse what they see as a costly mistake. Their goal is to throttle wireless access or at least make it more expensive so they can return more profits to their own bottom line.  This also means they could balkanize portion of the internet based on special monetary deals, tipping the balance away from small players and towards the people who can pay the most. This imbalance would have a substantial negative impact on the innovation explosion engendered by inexpensive and unfettered internet access.

Network philosophy and governments

For the most part we, in the internet industry, tend to look at structures made out of networks, where each node in the network has a similar say and amplification only happens as a reward mechanism based on the validity of the content being created. It is something we measure in page-views, referral links, subscribers, and twitter followers. It is a model where a 15 year old kid with good ideas can provide opinions in a similar forum as an retired US congressman and both opinions are treated by the network in the same fashion initially.

The content is there for all to see and to be judged on its own merit. Sure, there is some element of filtering happening as people look to follower counts, or subscribers, or longevity as social proof of value but that social validation changes in a dynamic environment and yesterday’s unknown can become today’s superstar as quickly as today’s superstar can become tomorrow’s has-been.

Our governmental institutions, however, has largely based on a more traditional system of top-down command and control, where vision is created at the top, communicated to the lower rungs, and executed within the frame of what the leadership wants. A government, like any organism, tend to be resistant to change.

Evolution has taught us that it is not the strongest of the species that survive but the most adaptable to change. And changes created by network philosophy will have a direct impact on the current state of government. How well that impact is managed is dependent on how well each side is prepared. If preparations are lopsided to one side or the other, the clash will be extremely violent (think Libya) and the outcome will kill the unprepared side. If the preparations are of relatively equal measure, the clash itself will be relatively painless (think Egypt or Tunisia) but there will still be a lot of things to hash out afterwards.

Incremental AND Revolutionary

So to put things simply: it’s time for geeks to get involved in policy making. Refusing to do so is equivalent to signing a death penalty for the current state of the Internet.

Let me simplify that: You can either get involved or give up on the internet.

Over the next decade, the legal framework and the way government will run for the next century or more will be defined. Your role in defining it will help decide whether we live in as free a society (or even freer) as we do today or whether we end up in a more controlled environment.

In order to facilitate the transition, there is a need for both incremental and revolutionary approaches. The incremental model is one where one works within the established framework (so working with government organizations, for example) to steer it in the direction of change through a series of small, seemingly painless, sets of changes. It is akin to moving everything off by a single degree 180 times to completely reverse course. In that model, the secret is to establish the appropriate partnerships, build the appropriate coalitions between all parties and help everyone understand that change takes time but that each step forward brings us one step closer to the future.

In that model, one can do simple things like supporting pro-internet candidates through donations and volunteering of time, or educating current politicians on certain issues. The incremental model puts the focus on the rules of law and uses the current model to move from status quo to a longer term change over a long period.

Meanwhile, the revolutionary model looks to break down the existing system and, through its attack, forces the system to change itself in order to co-opt the revolutionary elements and get them to stop the attacks. The revolutionary model looks at the edge of changes as the beginning while the incrementalist look at it as the end of the process. Because the revolutionary generally looks much farther, he/she is pulled back from where they want to be and continues to push for more reform on an ongoing basis, always being the early test case and always pushing the dialogue a little further out.

Interestingly enough, both models have the same aims, forward motion and change, and the people from each side tend to be the ones that work together in the post evolutionary state.

So, while I myself am very much in the incrementalist camp, I want to put out a call to everyone out there to choose a side and get involved: If you’re reading this, you care about the internet. And if you care about the internet, you now have to go out and get involved in shaping its future, which will ultimately be defined through new laws over the next decade.

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About the Author

Tristan Louis

Writing and working on the internet since 1993, I've launched six companies, of which two went public and three were sold. This is my personal site and all opinions here are mine.