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Let’s Talk About “Internet Responsibility”

We need to talk about Internet responsibility, and we need to talk about it now. By “Internet responsibility,” I am not referring to some abstract subjective connotation of it, but rather to an attempt to identify objective criteria that could be used as a benchmark for determining responsibility. For the past 20 something years we all have been using the Internet in different ways and for different reasons; but, have we ever contemplated what our levels of responsibility are? Have we ever taken the time to consider how certain behaviors by certain agents affect the Internet? But, more importantly, do we even know what it is that we are responsible for?

Responsibility and technology seem to have a special relationship mainly due to technology’s pervasiveness role in societies. But, to understand what is so special about this relationship, we should first ask ourselves what it means to be responsible.

In everyday life situations, there is typically an individual confronted with an ethical choice. Although the choice at hand may be morally complex, we tend to think of the actions and what ethical concerns they may raise as well as what are the direct consequences of that action. And, in most cases, it is often the case that there is a degree of certainty on what these consequences may be. In this context, ethical literature operates under three assumptions: (1) it is individuals who perform an act; (2) there is a direct causal link between their actions and the consequences that follow; and, (3) these consequences are most of the times a certainty. None of these assumptions, however, apply when trying to rationalize the nexus between responsibility and technology.

First, technology is a product of a highly collaborative process, which involves multiple agents. Second, developing technology is also a complex process, which is driven by the actions made by technologists and the eventual impact of such actions. And, third, it is very difficult to predict in advance the consequences or the social impact of technology.

But, there is yet another reason why responsibility plays such an important role in technology. Technology informs the way we, as human beings, go about living our lives. An example of this informative role is the correlation between the Internet and fake news. Who is, for instance, responsible if the news spread on the Internet is predominantly fake? Does it make sense, in such situations, to attribute responsibility to technology or is it possible to understand these complex situations so that, in the end, all responsibility can be attributed to human action? More interestingly, what—if any—is the responsibility of the actors running the platforms where fake news get disseminated? It may be argued that these platforms produce the algorithms that sustain and support an environment of fake news. And, ultimately, what is the impact of such actions to the Internet itself?

These are hard questions that invite some even harder answers, and I am not alone in thinking of them. For the past few months, the press has been replete with articles on the impact the Internet has on societies, and there is compelling data, which accurately points to the fact that, in 2018, our online interactions have changed dramatically compared to just 2 years ago.

Most of these stories, however, fall short on two counts: first, some of them at least, take the mistaken, yet predictable, route of placing the blame on the Internet itself—its decentralized architecture and design. But, as many of us have asserted, these stories lack an understanding of what decentralization means for the Internet. Secondly, these stories also use the current division on pro and against technology to sensationalize their points of view. But, as Cory Doctorow, argues: “This is a false binary: you don’t have to be “pro-tech” or “anti-tech.” Indeed, it’s hard to imagine how someone could realistically be said to be “anti-tech”—your future is going to have more technology in it, so the question isn’t, “Should we use technology?” but rather, “Which technology should we use?”

The answer to this question must be—at least in part: we should use “the technology that is responsible towards technology itself.” In other words, any technology that uses the Internet as its foundation should be responsible towards the Internet itself.

In other words, what are the characteristics of the Internet that make it unique, that allow others to build, create and innovate? And, once we know these characteristics, do we understand them well-enough to make sure we are responsible for preserving them?

Only a few know of these features and they are mainly engineers and Internet geeks. For most people the Internet appears as an awesome tool but, what is the source of this awesomeness is widely unknown. Why is it important that we know the source? Because we will appreciate the Internet better but also because it can provide us with the necessarily legitimacy to call out actors and their actions. Ultimately, it can help us answer the question “which technology we should use.”

The truth is that these characteristics remain mainly unknown because of two reasons: first, they have been baptized “invariants”, which is a very awkward and pretty incomprehensible to most people; secondly and more seriously, even by those who know or are supposed to know about them, they are either taken for granted or ignored.

In order to help you understand these ‘invariants’ and their importance, think of the oaths of knighthood. They were about honor, loyalty and faith. But, that’s not only why they were important. They were particularly important because they were an expression of such sincerity that it was backed up by the sense of responsibility towards a common goal.

Similarly, the ‘invariants’ of the Internet—the oaths we all should be striving to uphold—are the expression of the sincerity of choices made in the early days of the Internet’s development by the Internet engineers. And, they are:

  • Global reach, integrity: the Internet is to be global; it is also to be durable and trusted.
  • General purpose: the Internet is built to support demand.
  • Permissionless innovation: the Internet is welcoming to everyone.
  • Accessible: the Internet invites you to connect, study it and play with it.
  • Based on Interoperability and Mutual Agreement: the Internet needs people to exchange and use information.
  • Collaboration: the Internet is at its best when people collaborate.
  • Re-useable building blocks: the Internet feeds from technologies on top of other technologies.
  • No permanent favorites: the Internet rejects bullies and autocrats.

These should be oaths that everyone connecting and connected to the Internet should swear to. Understand these features, and you can start to get a sense of what responsibility towards the Internet means.

Now, I will let you start thinking how many of the current actors have sworn and upheld the oaths of the Internet.

This post was originally published on komaitis.org.

By Konstantinos Komaitis, Senior Director, Policy Development and Implementation, Internet Society

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of ISOC or its position.

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