Hard Questions for #iLaw2011's Freedom of Information/Arab Spring Sessions

We’ve revived the iLaw program after a five-year hiatus. This year, it’s an experiment in teaching at Harvard Law School: part class (for about 125 students) and part conference (with friends from around the world here for the week). And JZ has taken the baton from Terry Fisher as our iLaw Chair.  An exciting day.

I’ve been preparing for two sessions on Day 1: “Freedom of Expression and Online Liberty” and then a case study on the Arab Spring (which will feature, among others, our colleague Nagla Rizk of the American University in Cairo). I’ve been thinking about some of the hard questions that I’m hoping we’ll take up during those sessions.

– What effect does a total shutdown of the network have on protests? I’ve been enjoying reading and thinking about this article on SSRN.  The author, Navid Hassanpour, argues (from the abstract): “I argue that … sudden interruption of mass communication accelerates revolutionary mobilization and proliferates decentralized contention.”

– We’ve assigned two chapters from Yochai Benkler’s landmark book, the Wealth of Networks (the introduction and the first 22 pages of chapter 7, which you can read freely online).  I am trying to figure out how well Yochai’s theoretical from a few years ago is holding up.  So far, so well, I think.  The examples in the second chapter that we assigned – Sinclair Broadcasting and Diebold – feel distant from the Arab Spring and Wikileaks examples that are front-of-mind today.  But the essential teachings seem to be holding up very well.  How might we add to the wiki, as it were, of WoN, knowing what we now know?  (Another way to look at this question, riffing off of something Yochai hits in his own lecture: what was the role of Al-Jazeera and other big media outlets, in combination with the amateur media and organizers?)

– We have gotten very good at studying some aspects of the Internet, as a network and as a social/political/cultural space.  We can show what the network of bloggers or Twitterers look like in a given linguistic culture.  We can show what web sites are censored where around the world (see the ONI).  We can survey and interview people about their online (and offline) behaviors.  But lots of things move very fast online and in digital culture, and it’s hard to keep up, in terms of developing good methods and deploying them.  What are the things that we’d like to be able to know about that we haven’t learned yet how to study?  Plainly, activity within closed networks like Facebook is a problem: lots is happening there, and surveys of users can help, but we can’t do much in terms of getting at Facebook usage patterns through technology (and there are privacy problems associated with doing so, even if we could).  Mobile is another: our testing of Internet filtering, for instance, is mostly limited to the standard web-browsing/http get request type of activity.  What else do we want/need to know empirically, to understand politics, activism, and democracy in a networked world?

– How much did the demographic element — a large youth population in several Middle East/North African cultures — matter, if at all, with respect to the Arab Spring?  How important were the skills, among elite youth primarily, to use social media as part of its organizing?

– How did the online organizing of the Arab Spring mesh with the offline activism in the streets?

– How much did the regional element matter, i.e., the domino quality to the uprisings?  Does this have anything to do with use of the digital networks, shared language, and social/cultural solidarity that crossed geo-political boundaries?

– What, if anything, does the Wikileaks story have to do with the Arab Spring story?  Larry Lessig pulls them quickly together; Nagla Rizk and Lina Attalah balk at this characterization.  We’ll dig in this afternoon.

– [Student-suggested topic #1, via Twitter:] What’s the effect of the US State Department’s Internet Freedom strategy?

– [Student-suggested topic #2, via Twitter:] Does the distribution/democratization of channels of discourse undercut rather than support dissent, organizing, etc.?

There’s much more to unpack, but these are some of the things in my mind…

WaPo on the Myanmar Internet Crackdown

Roby Alampay nails some of the key issues related to Internet governance and international law in an editorial today in the Washington Post. It’s well worth a read, especially if you’ve been following the Myanmar crackdown. Alampay also makes a key link: the issue of Internet access should be perceived to be a human rights issue, and one which those thinking about Internet governance ought to take up.

In relevant part: “States have come far in such discussions and in reaching some levels of consensus. International standards have greater impetus, evidently, when they seek to cap that which they perceive as threatening to the civilized world: child pornography, organized crime, terrorism, and SPAM. This much is understandable.

“What the international community has barely begun to discuss, however, is the other side of the dilemma: What should be the international standard on ensuring Internet accessibility and openness?

“The more compelling Internet story last week took place as far away from Europe as one can get. It was from Burma — via defiant blogs, emails, and phone-cam videos posted online — that the world witnessed the other argument: that when it comes to the Internet (and all forms of media, for that matter) ‘standards’ is a legitimate topic not only with respect to limiting the medium’s (and its users’) potential harm, but more importantly in setting and keeping the medium (and its users) free.”

The Internet Governance Forum

A week or so ago, we at the Berkman Center joined our friends and colleagues at the Oxford Internet Institute in hosting an academic pre-briefing related to the Internet Governance Forum. The IGF, announced in July by the Secretary-General of the United Nations, is the process and institution that has grown out of the two phases of the World Summit on the Information Society. The IGF is directed by the highly able Swiss diplomat, Markus Kummer, and chaired by the equally able Nitin Desai. The OII’s director, Prof. Bill Dutton, has been leading the way on these briefings for the past three years and gently, appropriately, helpfully, keeping academics and technologists in front of the diplomats. On our end, fellow Mary Rundle — jointly at Harvard and at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society and director of NetDialogue — coordinates our efforts in this space and pulled together major aspects of this briefing.

In listening to the participants in an academic-heavy workshop, we heard a number of areas on which the Internet Governance Forum ought to focus and some hard problems that the IGF faces moving ahead.

For starters, especially for those who have not been following the blow-by-blow of WSIS and its progeny, here is my short FAQ based on this briefing we just had.

1) What is the Internet Governance Forum?

– It is something we feel good about.

– It is a process outcome of the WSIS process.

– It is a “new institutional approach.”

– It is uncharted territory, under a UN umbrella; it is relevant for the conversation about UN reform.

– It is a place for informed and meaningful discussion in a multi-stakeholder context and framework – once unacceptable, now the basis for moving ahead.

– It can be analogized, in part, to the OECD, which has been quite successful via the mode of sharing experiences and best practices (but importantly is different from the OECD in other ways, such as the inclusiveness of all states, not just 30).

– It is full of creative ambiguity.

2) What should the IGF do with that “creative ambiguity”? Or, put another way, how does the IGF deal with hard issues?

The IGF has been tasked, for its first meeting in Athens, with taking up four areas of inquiry: openness, security, diversity, and access.

– Openness: includes IPR, which is polarizing and about which the assembled group has agreed to do nothing in the past, though the Forum will have to grapple with it. Net Neutrality is another contender for a specific issue to handle under the “openness” banner. We all know how hard it is just to define “openness,” so the IGF has its hands full here, as important as this theme is. My personal favorite under openness, perhaps not suprisingly, is the cluster of freedom of expression and security and privacy issues that we work on through the OpenNet Initiative.

– Security: Everybody agrees that Internet security is something that needs to be addressed. But privacy, Mr. Kummer notes off the bat, will cause controversy. Kenn Cukier wonders if there’s in fact consensus about what security means? Do developing countries think that security means something different than what the West thinks it means?

– Diversity: Everyone agrees that ICTs for development is an essential component of what the IGF should do. Multilingualism and IDNs will certainly cause division. I think there has to be a major push to get funding for people from developing countries to be able to participate in meetings, as well as a devotion to free, web-based means of active participation.

– Access: This topic includes the age-old issue of interconnection costs and compensation related thereto. In most contexts, liberalization is perceived to be the common answer to the bulk of the problems. But it might also mean development and it might also mean open access, connecting up to the A2K movement and to the IPR themes dealt with (or not dealt with) under the “openness” heading.

3) But how, really, will the IGF manage to deal with sensitive topics?

– The idea is that the IGF will indeed deal with hard issues, not just sweep them under the table.

– But the IGF is not meant to make decisions, so it may be a good venue for bringing them up.

– It will be essential that the IGF figures out how to make participation meaningful, not just creating an environment where everyone can talk but no one listens.

– Connecting to results: even though the IGF does not have a mandate to make policy decisions, much less enforce anything, how, if at all, can the IGF lead to the world becoming a better place?

4) What were the key take-away messages at the briefing?

– From the Executive Secretariat, the clear message from Markus Kummer was that expectation management is essential. If it is interesting, it allows you to contribute, you learn something – even if the world has not changed – then that should be a success.

– Professor Jonathan Zittrain, our beloved colleague, had the most provocative suggestion. Is there an absence of opportunities for diplomats to get together? Is there an absence of opportunities for network architects to get together? (Even if there are enough opportunities for these two groups separately, we need to get these guys all together, plus one sociologist, responded one participant.) The IGF, JZ said, should not just be a meta-meeting. There is a lesson from Wikipedia. In the first instance, the IGF should leap-frog the so-called stakeholders. Go, instead, straight to the users. The right audience is the one-laptop-per-child children who are about to get the equivalent of a blinking cursor. We don’t want them reading stuff and clicking on ads. We want them to see something that they can change, anytime.

– Professor Milton Mueller, a longtime participant and analyst of this space, disagreed, contending that we should not “continue to conflate the free association communities, like Wikipedia, and governance institutions, which get stuck with problems that people come up with.”

5) A few of my own reflections on what the IGF might do, after the meeting.

– We should recognize that there are various modes of grappling with problems, and of governance, related to the Internet (and yes, I do believe in some degree in Internet exceptionalism in certain contexts, that the laws of gravity still apply but that problems have different and distinctive contours than their real-world counterparts do, prompting thought around different types of governance that might be appropriate):

– Sometimes, the sovereign state, or a collected group of states, carry out governance (for good and for ill). This is the zone of governance that Tim Wu and Jack Goldsmith cover in Who Controls the Internet?;

– Sometimes, it’s something that users can do a lot to work out, and should do to work out first, with a back-stop of the states and involvement of companies (ISPs, e.g.) (this was what I had in mind for my own part in a co-authored paper, the Accountable Net);

– But there is also something very intriguing of democratic institutions that seek to bridge the public and the private to work on problems together. Part of the function could be the collection and aggregation of comments, employment of an ombudsman, and provision of a feedback loop.

To me that’s the wonder and the intriguing challenge of a “new institutional approach” here:

– How do you clarify the themes, prioritize the conversations, and join the hard issues (not forgetting history, or the broader construct of these issues, but also aware of where Internet is different)?

– How do you invite, manage, and make participation meaningful, when someone not representing a state seeks to participate? (Capture the energy that went into WSIS, rather than let it dissipate, says Mary Rundle.)

– And how do you link this process, with appropriately managed expectations, to making the world a better place? To figure out the answer to that question strikes me as the way to take the IGF from a garden-variety “success” and to turn it into an outstanding success.

(Want to know more about the issues that the IGF could take up? Check out NetDialogue, and help us to keep the conversation about these issues informed and lively.)