In the Internet We Trust: Is There a Need for an Internet Social Contract?

02/13/2015 03:47 pm ET | Updated Apr 14, 2015

The current trust deficit and ways to overcome it are the focus of a recent blog by Michael Moller, acting director of the UN Office in Geneva. It inspired this reflection on trust in an online world.

The relevance of trust online

According to sociologist Niklas Luham, 'a complete absence of trust would prevent us from even getting up in the morning'. Many of our daily routines presume trust. Trust not only makes our lives simpler, it makes societies richer, as Robert Putnam showed in his study on trust and the economic success of Renaissance Italy. The same logic applies to the success of Silicon Valley. Trust in institutions and in laws frees time for innovation and creativity. In many parts of the world institutions are weak and trust in them is low. A lot of energy is spent avoiding being cheated.

Are current levels of mistrust greater than those of the past? Breaches of trust have been around since Adam and Eve's exploits in the biblical Garden of Eden. There has always been some failure to comply, and some abuse of trust. But, our times and the Internet make trust more relevant. A significant part of our life takes place in online spaces, spaces which cannot be easily verified; this is an issue, particularly for those for whom 'to see is to believe'. With our growing interdependence, the stakes in trust (or the compensations we make in its absence) are higher.

How we trust in the online world

Our online trust is machine-driven (mechanical trust). We perceive computers as another device that extends our capabilities. We demonstrate our trust in technical devices by our reliance on them. Just as we trust that our cars won't break down, and that they will bring us to where we intend to go, we also trust computers to complete the tasks we require of them daily.

In the wake of the Snowden revelations, trust in machines has evolved into a question of trust (or the lack thereof) in those humans who operate said machines. It is no longer about the competence of the machine - whether the Internet will function - but rather about the intentions of those operating it. But it is not only about intentions. It is also about systemic changes in how the Internet economy operates.


Systemic challenge for trust online

The new Internet business model, as described in this illustration, poses systemic challenges for trust online. How transparent is this new model? What values are exchanged? Can we accept it?
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Let us start with 'us' - the users. It would be naïve to believe that the richness of the Internet services we enjoy is paid for only by our Internet subscriptions (in Switzerland, it is CHF 49/month). The cost of 'free' Internet services is much higher in terms of innovation, software, and reliable services. The difference between our Internet subscription and the real cost has to be covered by someone. And it is... it is covered by the monetisation of our data by Internet companies through business models based on online advertising.

Does this unclear arrangement undermine our trust in the Internet and in those who provide its services? In most cases it does. But in some cases we make a tacit deal. For example, I am fine with Google monetising my data in exchange for giving me free use of its Google Translate application. Whatever it earns by using my data is fair compensation for helping me to overcome my lack of talent for learning foreign languages. This is my 'implicit deal' with Google. But you might not like this type of deal. It is not transparent and may undermine your trust in the Internet.

What can be done to ensure trust and growth of the Internet economy?

We can start with a few simple steps ...

First, the way in which our data is handled (including the monetisation of data) should be fully transparent. This will help us to make more informed decisions on how we want to use Internet services and applications.

Second, governments and public authorities should require that the terms of service (ToS) are clear, concise, and apparent, perhaps including a ToS in plain language. Governments could require that the ToS be clearly available and not hidden. In particular, companies should increase the font size when it comes to delicate stipulations in fine print.

Yet even these practical steps may not solve the problem, since it is not only related to the bad/good intentions of the main players; it is related to profound changes in the business model that question some pillars of existing values and rules (e.g. privacy protection).

Is there a need for a new Internet social contract?

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Modern society may need a new Internet social contract between users, Internet companies, and governments, in the tradition of Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan (exchange freedom for security) or Rousseau's more enabling Social Contract. The new deal between citizens, governments, and business should address the following questions: What should the respective roles of governments and the private sector be in protecting our interests and digital assets? Would a carefully designed checks-and-balance system with a lot of transparency be sufficient? Should the Internet social contract be global or would a regional and national contract work?

A social contract could address the main issues and lay the foundation for the development of a more trustworthy Internet. Is this a feasible solution? Well, there is reason for cautious optimism based on the shared interests in preserving the Internet. For Internet companies, the more trusting users they have, the more profit they can make. For many governments, the Internet is a facilitator of social and economic growth. Even governments who see the Internet as a subversive tool will have to think twice before they interrupt or prohibit any of its services. Our daily routines and personal lives are so intertwined with the Internet that any disruption to it could signify a disruption for our broader society. Thus, a trustworthy Internet is in the interests of the majority.

Rationally speaking, there is a possibility of reaching a compromise around a new social contract for a trusted Internet. We should be cautiously optimistic, since politics (especially global politics), like trust (and global trust), are not necessarily rational.

This text is excerpt from ongoing research on an Internet social contract conducted by Jovan Kurbalija. For background reading, consult An Introduction to Internet Governance. For events and resources on Internet Governance, consult the Geneva Internet Platform and DiploFoundation.

Follow Jovan Kurbalija on Twitter: @jovankurbalija