Rights AND responsibilities

I spent most of last week in Rio De Janeiro at the Internet Governance Forum (IGF). This is the annual United Nations event that brings together many of the world's leading Internet policy makers. I spoke on a couple of panels: the first, organized by the European Broadcast Union, about the Internet's quality of content; the second, entitled Emerging Issues, the closing panel of the entire conference, which focused on the future of Internet governance.

IGF was a quite different sort of conference from the typical Silicon Valley techno-celebration. The latter focus on the rights of Internet users and entrepreneurs. in contrast, much of the discussion at IGF was about responsibilities: our responsibility to protect children from online pornography, our responsibility to provide Internet access to the less developed world, our responsibility to behave ourselves like adults online, our responsibility to establish rules in the anarchic online world.

It was a particular honor for me to he Emerging Issues panel (read and see). Brilliantly moderated by Nik Gowing, BBC World's chief news programme anchor, the panel included the two founding fathers of the Internet: Bob Kahn, currently Chairman/CEO of the Corporation for National Research Initiatives (CNRI) and Vint Cerf, currently Google's Chief Evangelist. As Steve Balkam reported in today's Huffington Post, our panel got pretty heated. I argued that our twin responsibilities are to work on providing media literacy for the masses and to challenge the use of anonymity by many Internet users (at least in the West). Cerf -- with whom I'd already clashed at the earlier Quality of Content panel -- strongly disagreed: he called my position "crap" and suggested, in traditional libertarian fashion, that we all have a right to be anonymous on the Internet.

And yet even Cerf, I suspect, is not immune to the argument that a completely unrestricted Internet is self-destructive. As the Emerging Issues panel unfolded, he acknowledged that there was a need not only for a regionally sensitive Internet bill of rights, but also one of responsibilities:

It strikes me that what we just uncovered in addition to the notion of an Internet Bill of Rights is the notion of Internet responsibility. And what I see emerging out of some of this discussion is literally a law of the net, which may take a  very long time to figure out, but some things are going to have to be globally  accepted as responsibilities for using this technology.  And similarly we have  to arrive at agreements about what rights people have to use it. And finally,  I think we have to split local conditions and local practices from the ones that we would like to have globally. One tiny example for law enforcement, there may be some things that we really need to do on a global basis, we have to agree that people have to be responsible on a global scale for certain actions and that we will globally enforce failure to observe those responsibilities. That may lead  us into a fairly complex territory, just like the law of the sea.  But it may be that we need a matrix like that in order to work all this out.

Brave words indeed. Let's hope that Cerf -- Mountain View's Chief Evangelist -- was evangelizing on behalf of Google here, and not just as an iconic technology pioneer. If Google -- with its incomparable financial and technology resources -- gets behind a self-policing bill of rights AND responsibilities, then the Internet could indeed become a more civil, just and productive place.

The question now, of course, is who is going to write the bill; as I told Cerf in Rio, my only requirement is that its content should not authored by an artificial algorithm.