A little while ago I attended an extremely interesting symposium at the University of Aberystwyth. There were only a handful of people there whom I had met before. This was for the very good reason that, in the main, the participants whom I managed to hear were specialists in the field of international politics. They really should get out more, by which I mean I greatly regret not having come across them before. Their take on the internet was breathtakingly and refreshingly different. Maybe it’s me who should get out more?
A divine mystery
Of course it is foolish to suggest there is or ever could be a single narrative which would fully explain the history of the internet, much less the nature of the challenges currently facing it but there is one which tends to dominate in many forums. According to this view the internet is seen as having emerged from a form of techno Parthenogenesis, unsullied by any form of grubby intercourse with politics or politicians. The internet’s midwives were drawn from a saintly elite group of computer scientists who miraculously appeared from nowhere and the only hope for the continued useful existence of cyberspace in the longer run is somehow to get back to this (imagined but blissful) prelapsarian idyll.
According to this version – more or less explicitly stated depending on the speaker and the audience- worldly politics and in particular its most reviled form, “the state”, for which here, for these purposes, read the US Federal Government, played little or no part in anything of importance to do with the invention or development of the internet.
OK so maybe politics had a little bit to do with it
Yes, it is conceded the US Department of Defence provided key initial funding which really got things moving in the early days and, ok, it is also true, they allow, that for a while the US Government owned the domain name system and that it still exercises a degree of beyond the grave control through the Affirmation of Commitments and, well, it is acknowledged IANA has still not transitioned, moreover if it does, as with ICANN, it will do so with tombstone strings attached.
All these things are explained away, minimized or dismissed. It’s almost as if there is a belief in certain quarters that the civil servants and US politicians who were responsible at different critical moments for the relevant areas of policy were simply being manipulated by the über smart geeks who were the only ones who knew what was truly going on.
This type of de haut en bas denial of the role of politics, which is almost invariably linked to an aggressively stated wish to keep things that way is infuriating. It makes it extremely difficult to have an intellectually coherent or honest discussion about what is happening on Planet Earth and the part the internet plays in it. Yet it is a recurring theme that crops up constantly in many different sorts of discussions about one or other aspect of the internet and its associated technologies.
I once made a presentation at an IETF workshop that was establishing a new standard for collecting data through the browser about the physical location of devices connected to the internet. It wasn’t true of everyone in the room but a goodly proportion of those present were plainly disgusted by my invitation to them to consider some of the wider implications of what they had embarked upon.
That was so not their job, they said. This was a purely technical question and that was how it should be. They didn’t quite say we are only following orders. Scrub that. A number of them did but, weirdly, they did so in a palpable fug of moral superiority because somehow this showed they worked on an entirely different and superior plane. In their book policy and politics were words with which no self-respecting geek should engage. Those were the concern of others, less fortunate than themselves.
A wider view
This is why people need to listen to or read more of the stuff being put about by the likes of Richard Beardsworth and Madeline Carr (no relation) both of whom gave brilliant talks at the Aberystwyth Symposium. They locate discussions about internet governance in the context, for example, of the rising economic, military and diplomatic power of China or the emergence of a multi-polar world where the Old Order is having to face up to challenges posed by the emergence of new large players : think Brazil, India and so on.
Hilary Clinton was perhaps the most prominent public exponent of the notion of the internet as a technology with a political mission to change the world to make it, in her view, a better place. Lots of people will share her hopes in that regard but in so doing they cannot at the same time be disdainful of all the large and small “p” political baggage that goes with it.