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At a Crossroads and In the Crosshairs: Technology & the Future of Democracy

Today we sit at a critical juncture in technology and telecommunications history -- a time when utopian and dystopian trajectories are both possible, and when our thoughts and actions will shape the very future of participatory democracy.
February 19, 2013 |
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Today we sit at a critical juncture in technology and telecommunications history -- a time when utopian and dystopian trajectories are both possible, and when our thoughts and actions will shape the very future of participatory democracy. In Europe, privacy battles focus on how to protect the rights of citizens in a digital era. The network neutrality debates in Brazil and South Korea last year underscored the importance of the continuing effort to uphold principles of the Internet’s founding tenets. In the United States, cyber-security is raising questions about the balance between freedom and security in the 21st century. In India, NGOs pushed the government to reverse its position and oppose intergovernmental control over the Internet. The release of new products such as Apple’s iPhone and Google’s Android epitomize the ongoing tension between open and closed technologies.And authoritarian regimes around the globe are struggling to find new ways to surveille and censor, while living in fear of the liberatory potential of new communications technologies.

What's clear is that the struggle for the future of democracy is enjoined and the battlefields span countless locations around the globe.

The outcomes from these battles are fundamentally important – the path dependencies created will reverberate for generations to come. The global liberalization of traditionally state-owned telecommunication companies in the 1980s and 1990s helped pave the way for the Internet’s rise a decade later. But the laissez faire attitudes of many governments towards telecommunications have lead to ever-increasing abuses, malfeasance, anti-competitive practices, price-gouging, redlining, and a host of other dysfunctional business practices. In the U.S., Congress’s decision to promote the use of the Internet for commercial purposes unleashed powerful new forces that drove the Internet’s rapid expansion and lead to the creation and wide-spread adoption of incredible innovations (e.g., social media blogging platforms, e-mail, VoIP systems like Skype, instant messaging). To this day, resources like Wikipedia remain outstanding examples of how a relatively small community of volunteers can create remarkable treasures for humankind at large -- all thanks to the Internet.

But it would be a mistake to equate the Internet today to what existed ten (or even five) years ago. Unlike other domains of human interaction, we are facing fundamental choices about what we want this new communications sphere to look like. And because computer-mediated communication is evolving so quickly, it is imperative that we focus on normative principles that will withstand the test of time and do not favor particular “solutions” or technologies.

The key battles that are being waged too often take place behind the scenes, if not out of public view entirely.

Unfortunately, many decision-makers often do not understand the technological realities they face, much less how various technologies actually work -- which makes it all too easy to create bad legislation, treaties, protocols, rules, and regulations. And we are now facing decades of “deferred maintenance” regarding tech policy as generation upon generation of leadership has kicked the can down the road rather than address the myriad failings and limitations to existing legal frameworks.

The list of issues is long, but solutions are also quite forthcoming. The Internet connects us globally; but Intranets can connect us locally as well. Device-as-infrastructure networks are at the forefront of the Intranet era -- enabling greater participatory democracy at the community level through peer-to-peer communications; and also challenging and upsetting existing centralized business models set to maximize profits and control. At the same time, privacy and surveillance require substantially more attention from decision-makers, especially as invasive practices and technologies are becoming more ubiquitous for commercial and political purposes. And while the Internet’s open architecture has been facilitating interconnections between different services and applications, these principles of network neutrality are being undermined by mobile carriers, who have managed to convince the Federal Communications Commission to differentiate wireless and wireline Internet service, gutting most consumer protections for cell phone users.

These are not merely technical matters – the outcomes directly affect social and economic outcomes as well and they underpin and exacerbate the digital divide. The vast majority of humanity remains without meaningful broadband access -- deepening inequalities between the rich and the poor, men and women, educated and illiterate. And as networks and devices become increasingly locked down, the very notion that everyone can be an “Internet craftsman” or “entrepreneurial visionary” by using the Internet as a platform for innovation is at risk. What these battles have in common is their focus on the locus of control. They address fundamental questions structuring our societies. Who controls our personal data? Who controls the hardware we buy? Who controls traffic on the networks we use and the information we send through them? Who controls our security? Who protects our privacy? And who controls creative innovations entering the market?

The degree to which network users have control over the technologies we use every day will determine their democratic topology.

Enclosures are happening throughout the technological realm. In the U.S., the common carriage provisions that have been a part of telephone interoperability for generations do not apply to Internet service provision -- enabling providers to refuse to interconnect with one another and carry each other's data. This, in turn, has lead to the wholesale collapse of what once was a vibrant service provision market and the rise of a de-factor oligopoly of national Internet service providers.

According to the 2010 National Broadband Plan, 96% of Americans have two or fewer wireline broadband service providers. When it comes to spectrum, our public airwaves remain inaccessible in spite of the gross inefficiencies of spectrum usage. At a global level, the slow transition from IPv4 to IPv6 has been fueling countries’ desire to brainstorm alternative infrastructures independent of US influence as they see their IPv4 address space running out. And the ASCII character system used for domain names inhibited the use of non-Latin languages until relatively recently. On the application level, the non-portability of personal data (whether from our social networking platform or our electronic medical records) ties users to specific applications and prohibits us from switching easily between offerings. In short, Digital Feudalism threatens open technologies and democratic principles -- without substantial and meaningful reforms, the accumulation of control will become ever harder to contest.

That is why a far more active, engaged public interest sector is needed -- a body politic that's activated and involved in fighting for its fundamental communications rights. Last October, Ford Foundation president Luis Ubiñas compared the industrial with the digital revolution at the Wired for Change conference in New York City. He argued that just as the unregulated growth of the industrial revolution required labor protections and environmental regulations, it is time to think about privacy and other safeguards for the digital world. There is no shortage of issues well worth fighting for. They range from net neutrality to stop companies from discriminating against competitors' applications, to the international Internet Freedom movement and the availability of circumvention technologies such as mesh networking.

We need to review and reform extreme policies such as our copyright and patent laws, and rein in overzealous law enforcement programs that are undermining our civil and human rights.

The future is both bleak and quite bright, depending on the outcome of near-future battles. The dystopian future is a world dominated by locked down networks, feature-limited handsets, and a “copyright ueber alles” absolutism that stifles innovation and centralizes control in the hands of the few to the detriment of the many. Defenders of the public interest face powerful opponents. AT&T, Facebook, RIAA and MPAA have an abundance of money to lobby decision-makers in Washington and other capital cities around the globe. Authoritarian regimes command vast resources and utilize centralized and hierarchical bureaucratic structure to exert control over communication. Challenging these structures requires a concerted and sustained effort for the network of people working to advance the public interest.

But there are also good reasons to be cautiously optimistic. The SOPA/PIPA protest in the United States spilled over into the ACTA protests in other countries in 2012. These were cases where freedom of speech and fair use won out over incredibly powerful and strongly entrenched copyright interests. The catalytic role social media played in the Arab Spring revolutions highlight how existing technologies are helping to undermine authoritarianism and create more democratic structures in their place. The World Conference on International Telecommunications has shown that this movement is no longer national or regional, but global. Civil society organizations from different communities and continents have been forming alliances. Increasingly, human rights groups, development NGOs, and high tech companies are standing side-by-side, amplifying a common message calling for Internet Freedom and digital justice. And as awareness amongst the general populace continues to increase, there's good reason to believe that a more informed citizenry will continue to ramp up its efforts and fight to ensure that the Internet Freedoms that support our fundamental human rights are enhanced.


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