I had the opportunity this week to attend a conference in Budapest on internet liberty sponsored by Google and the Central European University. The conference participants included representatives from business, government and civil society*, and featured an open discussion of some of the most intense debates surrounding the internet and mobile communications today. We had lively discussions about the struggle between freedom of individual expression and group interests. We also delved deeply into the implications, for private corporations like Google and Facebook, of the web being used as a tool for political or even just social organizing. At the end of it, I was left thinking that we were all feeling our way through a dark room and that got me to wondering when was the last time we were all here before.
About three-quarters of the way through the conference, I started pondering when the last time was that human beings have been asked to so fundamentally address the way that they relate to one another. In the course of human history, there have been only a handful of truly transformational shifts in how we organize ourselves.
A few examples of previous instances are in order, but this is not meant to be exhaustive. The first must have been when we moved from primarily hunter-gatherers to settled and agricultural societies. Another was surely when organized religion first began to dominate our interrelationships. The creation of the nation state and empires moved us into larger political relationships with the development of democracy fundamentally changing how some of those relationships were structured. One more is certainly the move from agrarian societies to industrialized ones.
Looking at the internet and mobile, I don't think there has been such a transformational change in the way human beings organize our social and political relationships since the development of democracy. Then, there was little infrastructure for how to deal with that new way of organizing ourselves. There were few living or historical reference points for example, of a constitution, of law that protected individuals or more specifically that empowered the public to engage larger more powerful interests such as the state. Today, I think we are in the same position of trying to create the infrastructure to handle a new order.
For example, how do we determine and who determines when national security or group rights trump individual ones? Who owns your personal data, both your identifying information and your usage information? What does it mean that anything you put on Facebook is owned by Facebook? What does it mean that it is potentially available forever? Is the right to organize online as fundamental as the right to assemble offline? Should the public be able to sell access to advertisers or is it up to private internet companies when and how they advertise to you?
I know that some of these questions, and others that are not mentioned here have answers but not all are widely agreed upon and most are still in some state of evolution. The Google conference was a useful discussion for continuing to hash it out.
Because of the profoundly important nature of this shift, more conversation like the one in Budapest needs to happen at the local level. Because circumstances are different from country to country, bringing business, civil society and government together to have these conversations at the state level is critical. There are typologies that exist of levels of net freedom that exist around the world. And while a lot of the focus goes to the least free countries in the world, I think that most of the effort needs to be put into the places that are walking the fence, like Turkey. If dialogue is convened in places like that and it results in more net freedom, then the number of countries in the "free" columns will go up, further marginalizing a smaller number of countries.
Regardless, the point that more discussion is needed at the national level remains and the fact that this conversation happened was a good next step.
*Several of the activists present were taking risks to their personal safety by attending, as they do through their activism everyday, and as a result no names of activists were used in this piece.