Government by Treaty

The Internet is a worldwide network, and (like it or not) laws will be enforced in it.

While I was writing about this recently for another publication, describing efforts to impose order on the Internet through new treaties, I concluded the proposals themselves are controversial. Yet, that isn’t what bothers me. It is the process that bothers me.

Essentially, Internet governance is being developed through treaties, as well as through government-to-government agreements designed to set norms and coordinate the efforts of the police. These efforts are already bearing some fruit. It took very little time to catch the creators of the Melissa virus and the Love Bug. (We’ve even gotten at least one of the people behind those denial-of-service attacks in February.)

My problem is that the treaty process is balky and extremely undemocratic, because it’s the realm of diplomats, cops and spies. In fact, the only American voices being heard in the present effort are those of the U.S. attorney general and the FBI director. No matter who they are (and the names will likely change on both doors next year), they have only one interest: order.

Within our borders, the power of such officials is checked. Congress can change the laws; courts interpret the laws and can demand that police change their procedures. We have clear guarantees of certain inalienable rights.

Yet, most importantly, we can change our minds. For example, every year opportunity knocks for revolution in our cities and states, if not throughout the country. Every four years we can take a new direction. Here, the people rule.

So what’s lacking in our efforts to govern the Net to date is, in a word, democracy. On many issues (like copyright) we’re heading toward a direct collision of mass civil disobedience against untrammeled police power. We assume that unjust laws can be gotten around. But that means casualties. It’s a form of civil war.

This is not something I have an answer for. Yet, it’s clear that national governments are insisting that their norms be respected online as well as offline. However, in an international network they can’t be, because norms are different everywhere.

Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility is trying to start the process of democratization through its “One Planet, One Net” initiative. The effort is based on what it calls “seven key principles.”

Think of them as a “Bill of Rights” for the Internet. Unfortunately, the principles are in direct conflict with the concerns of the Justice Department, and there are no institutions around to reconcile those conflicts.

For instance, according to Principle 3,”Every use of the Net is inherently an exercise of freedom of speech, to be restricted only at great peril to human liberty.” So are the efforts of Switzerland and Australia to restrict Net speech illegal? So how do we enforce our rights?

According to Principle 4, “Without assurances of appropriate privacy, users of the Net will not communicate and participate in a meaningful manner.” But the coming cybercrime treaty will (at the insistence of the Clinton administration) strip all Internet users of anonymity.

The “loyal opposition” in this treaty business may be Barry Steinhardt’s Global Internet Liberty Campaign. But there’s no way to measure how much support his positions have, nor is his the only type of opposition out there.

So I’ve pointed out the problems. Are we ready to work on solutions?

Related reading

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