254 – Why we need strong internet governance

Posted on September 22, 2013 by

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(A simplistic view)

If I correctly remember Google’s early mission statement, it sounds something like: “We want to know today, what you will do tomorrow.” So does your government. I am not sure I want either of them to know this. I do not want them to know about crowd behavior either. So we better watch them.

With the advent of the electronic age, we have all acquired an “electronic footprint”. It reveals where we are, what we do, whom we call, what we buy, and so on. Behavior, if not inner thoughts and opinions has become transparent. In itself, each piece of information may be insignificant. And in any case, it is in the public domain, so: “why worry?” One “has nothing to hide.” Government and firms assemble the footprint for each person and correlate it with information from others, just like you and me. A profile emerges. One has become utterly predictable – within the limits of statistical error.

Internet firms use behavioral information surreptitiously to nudge people in their purchases (one may even like this – at least up to a point). The state is out to spot “trouble-makers.” Behavior, not opinions, is what counts in a society. Stability in society is predicated on predictable behavior of its members. Trouble-makers – even in a good cause – threaten the stability by proposing change. Change is unsettling of the status quo – aka the state. Now government can identify trouble-makers (however defined) before they move. Scanning for behavioral patterns in enough (plus lots of nerdy software). This is something computers do highly efficiently. The profile is kept in reserve until early warning signs emerge from analysis of behavioral patterns. At this point, the state need not pounce on the potential “trouble-maker”. Isolating him from the crowds suffices.

Governments have been busy profiling people. I call this profiling “exemplary citizenship rating” – it recalls the “good credit rating” that emerged when I was young (one needed to go into debt, and pay off debt in order to convince banks than one was a good credit risk). “Good citizenship ratings” hover in the background – they are invisible. I may ask the government to divulge the information it has on me. On this, the government may even yield – if pressed. The government will never divulge how it elaborates my data into a meaningful profile. I may never have access to any conclusions. In so doing, the government has overturned the constitutional principle “innocent until proven guilty.” The state has established a comprehensive “clean list:” by default, all other citizens are potentially guilty. All citizens not on the list are at risk. This is what happened to a six-year old wanting to board the airplane with her parents. Ground staff denied the girl boarding as a “potential terrorist threat” – the US Dept. of Transportation refused to discuss the matter, and upheld the decision.

When the governments are not busy profiling individuals, they are busy studying the behavior of crowds. The electronic footprint of the mobiles moves from relay to relay, when cars travel on the highway. Suddenly this leisurely transfer stops. The police knows in real time that a traffic jam has occurred. How many people were in Tahiri Square? Just count the number of mobile telephones and the answer is at hand.

Internet companies remind me of humpback whales

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These whales squeeze enormous amounts of water through their baleens in order to capture the tiniest of plankton. Internet companies, like baleen whales, are among the largest living beings on earth. Such companies squeeze the maximum throughput of random data for tidbits of information. The more internet whales squeeze data, the better they get at it. Internet companies are natural monopolies. Being first is all that takes to stay first – see Microsoft, or Facebook. Ease of entry – the rule underlying competition – no longer applies. Late entrants will forever struggle making a living with scattered left-overs.

Like baleens, internet companies sing lovely, lonesome songs. Their services are for free to users: “Yes, Virginia, there is a free lunch for all the users.” The back-room dealings with advertisers and other hidden users of profiles are out of competitive sight. Internet companies, so they argue strenuously, only have the users’ best interests at heart. An unregulated environment is best for the “free flow of information.” In fact one should add: “better to eat the users with.” The more data flow, the more profiles emerge, and the more clients rush eagerly to buy them. The charge is hidden away in the purchase price. Self-regulation is awash with moral hazard – just ask the financial sector. Moral hazard is at its highest with natural monopolies. Once hooked on the internet, we users are no longer in a position to jump off. How many times have users agreed to an “update agreement” whose content is beyond their comprehension and ability to resist or reject? Do we know the consequences of clicking “do not agree”?

What is to be done? Internet has become vital to society. The transformation is akin to the introduction of agriculture 12’000 years ago. We need internet governance. Users better stay on top of internet governance, lest it becomes an incubus.

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The strategy is as old as mankind. When an alpha-bully threatens, betas rally in opposing him. Internet governance needs the broadest possible legitimation. Today’s system of “multi-stakerism” is a travesty in this respect. It reflects the malign neglect/scrutiny of governments (more than happy doing their profiling/censoring unhindered) and the self-serving bullying of the internet companies. Users urgently need a sustainable legitimated forum.

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