Archive for the 'internet governance' Category

Information Ethics: U.S. Hearing, but Global Responsibility


Today, the US House of Representatives’ IR Subcommittee on Africa, Global Human Rights and International Operations, and the Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific are holding an open hearing on the question whether the Internet in China is a Tool for Freedom or Suppression. My colleague Professor John Palfrey, among the foremost Internet law & policy experts, has prepared an excellent written testimony. In his testimony, John summarizes the basic ethical dilemmas for U.S. corporations such as Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and others who have decided to do business in countries like China with extensive filtering and surveillance regimes. John also raises the question as to what extent a code of conduct for Internet intermediaries could guide these businesses and give them a base of support for resisting abusive surveillance and filtering requests and the role academia could play in developing such a set of principles.

I’m delighted that our Research Center at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland is part of the research initiative mentioned in John’s testimony that is aimed at contributing to the development of ethical standards for Internet intermediaries. Over the past few years, a team of our researchers has explored the emergence, functionality, and enforcement of standards that seek to regulate the behavior of information intermediaries. It is my hope that this research, in one way or another, can contribute to the initiative announced today. Although the ethical issues in cyberspace are in several regards structurally different from those emerging in offline settings, I argue that we can benefit from prior experiences with and research on ethics for international businesses in general and information ethics in particular.

So far, the heated debate about the ethics of globally operating Internet intermediaries has been a debate about the practices of large and influential U.S. companies. On this side of the Atlantic, however, we should not make the mistake to think that the hard questions Palfrey and other experts will be discussing today before the above-menioned Committees are “U.S.-made” problems. Rather, the concern, challenge, and project – designing business activities that respect and foster human rights in a globalized economy with local laws and policies, including restrictive or even repressive regulatory regimes – are truly international in nature, especially in today’s information society. Viewed from that angle, it is almost surprising that we haven’t seen more constructive European contributions to this discourse. We should not forget that European Internet & IT companies, too, face tough ethical challenges in countries such as China. In that sense, the difficult, but open and transparent conversations in the U.S. are in my view an excellent model for Europe with its long-standing human rights tradition.

Update: Rebecca MacKinnon does a great, fast-speed job summarizing the written and oral testimonies. See especially her summary of and comments on the statements by Cisco, Yahoo!, Google, and Microsoft.

Mary Rundle On Internet Governance – And Beyond


My fellow Fellow Mary Rundle has just released a thoughtful post-Tunis piece entitled “Beyond Internet Governance: The Emerging International Framework for Governing the Networked World.” Here’s the abstract:

Increasingly, governments are regulating the “Net” – that is, the Internet and people’s activities over it. Because the Net is global in nature, governments are turning to intergovernmental organizations to iron out common approaches. Taken together, these international Net initiatives foray into all areas of government traditionally dealt with by domestic regimes – addressing foreign commercial relations, jurisdiction, infrastructure, security, monetary authority, property, relations between private parties, and citizenship.

In agreeing to participate in these federated, power-sharing arrangements, governments are gradually constructing an entire framework for governing the networked world. Given the importance of these rules for the future, those who hold freedom dear must work to build democratic values into this emerging international system.

Regulating Search? Call for a Second Look


Here is my second position paper (find the first one here) in preparation of the upcoming Regulating Search? conference at ISP Yale. It provides a rough arc of a paper I will write together with my friend and colleague Ivan Reidel. The Yale conference on search has led to great discussions on this side of the Atlantic. Thanks to the FIR team, esp. Herbert Burkert and James Thurman, Mike McGuire, and to Sacha Wunsch-Vincent for continuing debate.

Regulating Search? Call for a Second Look

1. The use of search engines has become almost as important as email as a primary online activity on any given day, according to a recent PEW survey. According to an another survey, 87% of search engine users state that they have successful search experiences most of the time, while 68% of users say that search engines are a fair and unbiased source of information. This data combined with the fact that the Internet, among very experienced users, ranks even higher than TV, radio and newspapers as an important source of information, illustrates the enormous importance of search engines from a demand-side perspective, both in terms of actual information practices as well as with regard to users’ psychological acceptance.

2. The data also suggests that the transition from an analog/offline to a digital/online information environment has been accompanied by the emergence of new intermediaries. While traditional intermediaries between senders and receivers of information—most of them related to the production and dissemination of information (e.g. editorial boards, TV production centers, etc.)—have diminished, new ones such as search engines have entered the arena. Arguably, search engines have become the primary gatekeepers in the digitally networked environment. In fact, they can effectively control access to information by deciding about the listing of any given website in search results. But search engines not only shape the flow of digital information by controlling access; rather, search engines at least indirectly engage in the construction of the messages or meaning by shaping the categories and concepts users’ use to search the Internet. In other words, search engines have the power to influence agenda setting.

3. The power of search engines in the digitally networked environment with corresponding misuse scenarios is likely to increasingly attract policy- and lawmakers attention. However, it is important to note that search engines are not unregulated under the current regime. Markets for search engines regulate their behavior, although the regulatory effects of competition might be relatively weak because the search engine market is rather concentrated and centralized; a recent global user survey suggests that Google’s global usage share has reached 57.2%. In addition, not all search engines use their own technology. Instead, they rely on other search providers for listings. However, search engines are also regulated by existing law and regulations, including consumer protection laws, copyright law, unfair competition laws, and—at the intersection of market-based regulation and law-based regulation—antitrust law or (in the European terminology) competition law.

4. Against this backdrop, the initial question for policymakers then must concern the extent to which existing laws and regulations may feasibly address potential regulatory problems that emerge from search engines in the online environment. Only where existing legislation and regulation fails due to inadequacy, enforcement issues, or the like, the question of new, specific and narrowly tailored regulation should be considered. In order to analyze existing laws and regulation with regard to their ability to manage problems associated with search engines, one might be well-advised to take a case-by-case approach, looking at each concrete problem or emerging regulatory issue (“scenario”) on the one hand and discussion relevant to incumbent legal/regulatory mechanisms aimed at addressing conflicts of that sort on the other hand.

5. Antitrust law might serve as an illustration of such an approach. While the case law on unilateral refusals to deal is still one of the most problematic and contested areas in current antritrust analysis, the emergence of litigation applying this analytical framework to search engines seems very likely. Although most firms’ unilateral refusals to deal with other firms are generally regarded as legal, a firm’s refusal to deal with competitors can give rise to anti-trust liability if such firm possesses monopoly power and the refusal is part of a scheme designed to maintain or achieve further monopoly power. In the past, successful competitors like Aspen Skiing Co. and more recently Microsoft have been forced to collaborate with competitors and punished for actions that smaller companies could have probably gotten away with. In this sense, search engines might be the next arena where antitrust laws with regard to unilateral refusals to deal are tested. In addition to the scenario just described, the question arises as to whether search engines could be held liable for refusal to include particular businesses in their listings. Where a market giant such as Google has a “don’t be evil” policy and declines from featuring certain sites in its PageRank results because it deems these sites to be “evil,” there is an issue of whether Google is essentially shutting that site provider out of the online market through the exercise of its own position in the market for information. Likewise, the refusal to include certain books in the Google Print project would present troubling censorship-like issues. It is also important to note that Google’s editorial discretion with regard to its PageRank results was deemed to be protected by the First Amendment in the SearchKing case.

6. In conclusion, this paper suggests a cautious approach to rapid legislation and regulation of search engines. It is one of the lessons learned that one should not overestimate the need for new law to deal with apparently new phenomena emerging from new technologies. Rather, policy- and lawmakers would be well-advised to carefully evaluate the extent to which general and existing laws may address regulatory problems related to search and which issues exactly call for additional, specific legislation.

Regulating Search? Discussion Paper I


I have the pleasure to participate in a terrific conference on “Regulating Search?” organized and hosted by our friends at the Information Society Project at Yale Law School. Here is my first discussion paper. I will post a second one later on:

Regulating Search?
Sketching a Normative Framework for Assessing Regulatory Proposals

1. The question of this symposium – Regulating Search? – can be approached from various angles and at different levels. In any event, one might expect, inter alia, that several proposals of legal and/or regulatory actions aimed at regulating search engines, ranging from consumer protection laws, IP reform, etc., will be up for discussion. Presumably, the respective proposals will pursue different policy goals and use different regulatory techniques.

2. In a later phase, proposals like this are likely to enter into competition with one another. Lawmaking and regulation are costly processes, requiring that choices about goals and means be made. Against this backdrop, a systematic comparison and isolated evaluations of regulatory proposals become essential in order to make well-informed and sustainable decisions. A look back at the history of what has been termed “cyberlaw,” however, reveals a prevalent lack of thorough assessment of legislative and/or regulatory actions, in part because such an assessment requires an open discussion and shared understanding of what fundamental policy objectives should underlie today’s information society in the first place. This failure should not be repeated in the future and with regard to a potential regulation of “search.”

3. I would like to suggest three core values (or policy goals) of a democratic information ecosystem that may serve as the benchmarks for assessing proposals aimed at regulating search engines in particular and search more generally: Autonomy, diversity, and quality. Informational autonomy includes at least three elements. First, an individual must have the freedom to make choices among alternative sets of information, ideas, opinions, and the like. This includes the freedom to decide what information someone wants to receive and process. Second, informational autonomy as an aspect of individual liberty necessitates that everyone has the right to express her own beliefs and opinions. Third, autonomy in the digitally networked environment arguably requires that every user can participate in the creation of information, knowledge, and entertainment.

4. The development of an individual’s own personality and self-fulfillment intersects with a second core value of the digitally networked ecosystem: its diversity. Diversity in the sense of a wide distribution of information from a great variety of competing sources can either be seen as a valuable mechanism to attain truth, or as a crucial instrument for protecting democratic process and deliberation. In the digital environment, however, the diversity of information, knowledge, and entertainment is an important aspect of the broader concept of cultural diversity.

5. As individuals, groups, and societies, we heavily depend in our decision-making processes on information, which is increasingly acquired over the Internet. In order to make good decisions, we depend on quality information, i.e., information that meets the functional, cognitive, aesthetic, and ethical requirements of different stakeholders such as users, creators, experts, and administrators. Consequently, legal and regulatory regimes should contribute to the creation and further development of a high-quality information ecosystem.

6. Each proposal that seeks to regulate search in general and search engines in particular can be evaluated based on these normative criteria. Even with this normative framework in place, however, the assessment of alternative governance regimes gets complicated, since the three policy goals “autonomy,” “diversity,” and “quality” are not necessarily always aligned. Unleashed diversity in the digitally networked environment, for instance, might have negative feedback effects on user autonomy because it increases an individual’s risk to be exposed to undesired information. A regulatory approach aimed at ensuring high-quality information, by contrast, might be in tension with informational autonomy, because it may impose a quality requirement leading to a level of quality that does not meet an individual’s informational needs.

7. As a consequence, governance proposals for search engines and their environments face the challenge of achieving a balance among three policy goals that are not perfectly aligned. In the case of search engine regulation, this problem is accentuated by the fact that search engines simultaneously affect all three aspects. For example, since search engine users often do not know in advance what specific piece of information they are looking for, the quality of the information that users get depends to a great extent on search engines. Consequently, the quality of information is intertwined with the quality of the search engine that defines which information becomes available based on any given query. Similarly, search engines have effects on autonomy and diversity in the digitally networked environment. Against this backdrop, regulation of search (engines) is a particularly complex task because each regulatory intervention focusing on one issue almost certainly affects another element of the normative framework.

8. In conclusion, this discussion paper calls not only for a careful design of legal or regulatory actions aimed at governing “search,” but also for a thorough assessment of legislative and/or regulatory proposals and their potential effects against the backdrop of core values of a democratic digital environment (system of “moving elements”). In that sense, the paper also advocates for a systemic view of “search” regulation, where “search” is understood as one element that interacts with other elements of the digitally networked environment, including decentralized content production and peer-to-peer distribution of digital content.

Comments welcome.

Hans Klein on WSIS 2


Hans Klein’s interesting assessment of the WSIS 2/Tunis outcome is online available here. From his conclusion section:

“Before WSIS ICANN was a sort of Frankenstein organization created in the basement of the US Department of Commerce. No formal delegation of authority from the US Congress authorized its exercise of public powers. Nor did its global elections give it legitimacy, since they were canceled before full implementation.
Now ICANN can claim some degree of public authority. Many people may regret the UN’s implicit endorsement of ICANN, but no one can easily dismiss the validity of the process. ICANN is the same but different. The next step in the policy process will be to work within its structures.”

Swiss Ministers at WSIS – Saga Continues


Not only Samuel Schmid made his way into the news at WSIS, but also our Minister Moritz Leuenberger. It is encouraging that both Ministers – belonging to the opposite parties of the political spectrum – made such a strong case for free speech despite the circumstances described in this report. For once, there is reason to be proud to be Swiss.

WSIS Update


Heise online (English version) provides a nice summary of the current state of the negotiations here in Tunis. And I’m sure you’ve all seen yesterday’s breaking news.

Plain-talking by Swiss President at WSIS


Samuel Schmid has got a lot of appreciation for his opening remarks at WSIS. Here’s the link to his much acclaimed speech. The most important part reads as follows:

“Parmi les individus encore interdits d’acc�s aux moyens d’information, nombreux le sont pour des raisons politiques. Il n’est pas acceptable – et je le dis sans d�tours – que l’Organisation des Nations Unies compte encore parmi ses membres des Etats qui emprisonnent des citoyens au seul motif qu’elles ont critiqu� leur gouvernement ou leurs autorit�s sur Internet ou dans la presse. Toute soci�t� du savoir respecte l’ind�pendance de ses m�dias comme elle respecte les droits de l’homme.” has a follow up on this issue and reports about the ways in which the Tunesian TV censored Bundesrat Schmid. See also Swissinfo’s report: “Samuel Schmid applaudi et censur� en Tunisie.

Join us at WSIS: Today 2PM, Expo 2


At WSIS, Berkman Center Fellows Rebecca MacKinnon and Ethan Zuckerman lead Expression Under Repression from 14:00 – 17:30, in Expo 2 (no. 3103). The event is hosted by Hivos; Citizen Lab Director of Technical Research Nart Villeneuve will present on “Internet Filtering: Realities and Myths,” and my colleagues will discuss the Filtering in Tunisia Report. Please join us, this will be a great session!

WSIS: Interesting Days Ahead


I’m sitting in a lounge of Milan’s airport with (luckily unfiltered) wifi access, waiting for my connecting flight to Tunis, where I will attend WSIS. Wow, this is going to be an unexpectedly interesting trip, given this developing story. As always, John Palfrey puts it into the right perspective:

“Our hosts here are very gracious. It is very important for such a substantial event to take place on the African continent. But the topic of Tunisia’s filtering regime, and regimes like it, ought to be on the agenda for WSIS, and it’s not. That’s one of the big problems of this event — that important, but diplomatically tricky, topics such as the balkanization of the Internet, in ways that often mislead citizens and visitors alike, are left aside.”

And Charlie Nesson encourages our reporters – citizen journalists – at WSIS:

“Go with this as far as an otherwise focusless meeting of global internet activists assembled with world media looking on can take you, and all the others who will be pleased to join you in making this an active agenda item.”

Also check Ethan Zuckerman’s take on it.

Welcome to the real world games of cyber-governance.

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