Net Governance & Online Regulation: The Other Side of Order

Try as I might, I am unable to climb out of a clichéd well of parables and phrases when it comes to piecing together a coherent write-up on ‘net governance and online regulation’. My thoughts are insistent on driving home the point about ‘great power and great responsibility’, ‘you sow what you reap’, ‘freedom is never won, you earn it’, ‘your freedom ends where my nose begins’ – you get the drift – a pronouncedly moral poker stokes this fireplace.

So, how do I come off on a moral high ground and err on the side of governance, especially since I label myself a digital native – a post-modern netizen, and therefore (perhaps, irrationally), subscriber to all things free, open and even anarchic? And yes, this is a battle and there are sides. Either you want a cyberspace with curfews and lock downs or a Wild West Frontier, where it’s a free for all.

Perhaps a call for governance comes from a self-defined righteousness of the situation. I consider myself in danger (will come to this later), and so, think it’s my moral right to ask for protection. In turn, it’s the duty of the government to protect me. Built-in are the dialectics of trust and responsibility, freedom and power, order and privacy, safety and intrusion; these antonyms constantly warring with each other in a space that is nebulous – and virtual. Unlike statehood or borders to a city, the boundaries of virtual cities are not staked to rulers yet.

History has taught us that no town or village, no city or state progresses without the creation and evolution of complex political structures of control and regulation. A burgeoning population signals the arrival of crime in various degrees and we turn to a single entity to set things in order. It’s a different matter that those in power also wreck havoc, however, it’s also true that a diverse set of people competing for the same resources do not adhere to reason – they subscribe to governance.

The online world is no different from ‘real’ society in this regards. In the early 90s, the Internet was this proto-tribe or clan with no definite chieftains staking claim to territories. Netizens explored lands, settled down in areas where they found resources, formed communities, built tools and implements (web pages, software, applications), interacted with neighbors (in forums and groups) and mimicked certain characteristics of offline modes of communication, be it in individual expression, group behaviour, networking, conducting business or indulging in leisure.

As I see it, there is inevitability to this trajectory and the Web would one day need governance. What accelerated external imposition of monitoring and regulations were other accidental – and sometimes, deliberate – events that took place parallel to early net explorations. The first SPAM email was sent out on 3 May 1978; first “bootsector” virus Elk Cloner was released in 1981, affecting floppy disks; in 1984, William Gibson writes the book ‘Neuromancer’ and coins the term ‘cyberspace’, effectively distancing the net from the educational and scientific “classification” into the realm of pop-culture-science-fiction; by 1989 McAfee Associates were distributing free virus software.

It’s in the mid-1990s, with the increasing rivalry between business corporations Microsoft, IBM, CISCO, Apple and Sun that we also see the first government and legal interventions in the arena of cyberspace and net technologies.  Napster was created in 1999, incentivizing music sharing online and striking the matching of copyright and piracy wars. Also, in the same year, we experienced our first mass annihilation thrill with the Y2K scare, and the year following, the ‘dotcom busts‘ shook our bubble-grade faith in the invulnerability of the Web. In November 2001, The European Council adopts the first treaty addressing criminal offenses committed over the Internet.

So there you have it, our forays in cyberspace were never really about responsible discovery; criminality and juvenile behavior also went hand in hand. A simple example would be the annoying CAPTCHAs that we have to pass through before our comments can be made visible on a blog. If spammers didn’t have so much leverage online or the tools to hoodwink the system, we wouldn’t need such check points, no? The same goes for piracy, phishing, money laundering, cyber-stalking, unsolicited pornography, hacking and disruption of secure, functional websites, and a host of other criminal activities that can’t be ignored or clicked away to the Recycle Bin.

The timeline to our current state is provided not as a history lesson and neither is it an explanation for the governments of the world to continue with their policies, which have steadily entered the territory of human rights abuse. With increasing criminal activities online – and increasing complaints from common man – the governments of the world have found it easy to take charge and gain footholds into our personal and private spaces. We now know more about surveillance, it’s not just a piece of brilliant fiction out of George Orwell’s mind. Everything from phone calls, messages to emails are censored, collated, archived, studied and sometimes, stopped from being sent out. Bloggers have been jailed, digital activists have been killed, net services have been shut down and services to websites have been denied arbitrarily.

That moral high ground that I started off defending earlier has crumbled.  Now, there is a tightening circle that we are pigeon-holed into and I no longer look to the ‘chief’ to keep me safe. The chief is in cohorts with the toolman (the group that harnesses technology to make weapons and design our security systems), lulling us into thinking that we cannot do without them. The stage is set for a showdown between techno-politico groups on one hand and civic-non-governmental factions on the other; one trying to hem us within boundaries, the other constantly redefining the meaning of boundaries.

What gives you hope for a better cyber society? More difficult to answer, which side of the divide do you belong – the one that thrives in chaos or the one that seeks order? I am still toeing the line on this one.

As Pranesh Prakash puts it succinctly, “…too little regulation and you ensure that criminal activities are carried on with impunity; too much regulation and you curb the utility of the medium.” But who do you turn to when the law makers judge you guilty even before you commit a crime? I guess there’s no ‘one-solution-fits-all’ answer. What you can bet your last buck on is that for every argument there’s a counter-argument. The anarchist who wants a law-less society is pitted against someone who wants balance and regulation through open data, open government and open culture initiatives. The cynic who is fed up of governmental control is pitted against the rationalist who calls for policy consultation with citizen-led groups. The poet who laments about surveillance might find solace with the academic stalwarts, who believe dialogue is a better way to achieve our aims – freedom with balance – than taking up arms.

This post appears as the editorial for Volume 8 Issue 2 of Links In the Chain, an online newsletter circulated by Centre for Internet & Society, Bangalore, as part of the  Digital Natives With a Cause? project. Download issue here.

– Nilofar Ansher


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