Democracy is under attack. This can be seen very clearly from various positions taken in the current debate around whether it is appropriate to state, in an international document, that Internet governance should be democratic. (For another text from the same overall debate and a bit of further background see this earlier blog post.) Below I give a copy of a mailing list posting on the “governance” list of the Civil Society Internet Governance Caucus in which I reply to a posting of Syracuse University professor Milton L. Mueller, who unfortunately is not alone among US professors in attacking democracy. The people who are referred to in Milton’s text by initials are Michael Gurstein (who is referenced as “MG”) and me (referenced as “NB”). “JNC” refers to the Just Net Coalition.

On Mon, 9 Mar 2015 19:34:45 +0000
Milton L Mueller wrote:

> Throwing the word “democratic” alongside “multistakeholder” doesn’t
> solve the problem. It is more fundamental.
> I feel like I’ve had this conversation about democracy with Parminder
> a dozen times, if not more. As I have pointed out repeatedly, and
> Jeanette did here also, the very meaning of “democracy,” much less
> its desirability, is completely unclear in a globalized environment.

I strongly disagree.

Whenever a word has a well-established literal meaning, and it is
commonly used in the sense of that meaning, then it has that meaning
everywhere where that literal meaning makes sense, and where it is not
clear from the context that the word is meant in a different sense.

The literal meaning of δημοκρατία (dēmokratía), in modern language
“democracy”, is that “it’s the people who have the power to rule”. This
is since ancient times seen in contrast to “the rule of an elite”, the
ancient Greek term for the latter being ἀριστοκρατία (aristokratía).

How democratic governance, in the sense of that literal meaning, is to
be implemented in an increasingly globalized and increasingly ICT-based
world (of which the Internet is nowadays already a rather central
aspect, and it is widely expected that the centrality of the Internet
will continue to grow), that is something that requires discussion and
consensus building.

In my view, this needed discussion and consensus building should be
based on first of all agreeing that governance is needed to some
extent, and that to the extent that governance is needed, it must be
democratic in the sense of the literal meaning of the word
“democracy” as stated above.

> Current conceptions of democracy are based on citizenship in a
> defined and limited territory, and institutions associated with
> territorial states that verify citizenship, assign specific rights to
> them, define an electoral machinery for aggregating the preferences
> of citizen population, and also LIMIT the powers and scope of
> democratic decision making in order to protect individual rights, and
> to maintain checks and balances on the various branches of
> government.

That is a very good summary of how democracy is implemented in the
context of a national state.

> None of this has any relevance to the global governance of the
> internet. There is no global state, no global citizenship, no global
> constitution dividing and limiting the powers that might be exercised
> by a global state, etc. There is no machinery for aggregating and
> effectuating the preferences of a global population.

I agree that trying to directly translate “how democracy is implemented
in the context of a national state” to the Internet would not make a lot
of sense, and to the extent that it might partly make sense, it would
not be desirable to do so. The resulting system of “Internet government”
would not in any worthwhile way be a democratic system.

> The territorial
> division of populations into distinct units, even if democratically
> governed, creates its own pathologies: one need only look at the
> increasing popularity of European parties that favor restrictions on
> immigration as one of hundreds of possible examples.

I certainly agree that there is a lot which goes badly in democratic

Already Plato pointed this out in ancient Athens in very impressive
ways, and he suggested the alternative of putting an elite of
philosophers in power.

Since those ancient times, the proponents of democracy have always been
aware of the arguments of Plato and of those who have followed in his
footsteps, consciously rejecting those arguments. In fact it’s the
central premise of democracy that in spite of these problems with
democratic decision-making, putting any kind of elite in power must
nevertheless absolutely be avoided. There are very good reasons for this:
Even though putting an elite in power might lead to more rational
decision making, then that (more rational) decision making capacity would
be exercised primarily according to the interests and according to the
(necessarily limited) knowledge and experiences of the members of the

In fact much of what goes wrong in the governance of national states
which are democratic (or which at least claim to be democratic) can be
blamed on the fact that even in such states (despite all the checks and
balances and other good countermeasures against elites gaining
unreasonable power) there are often still elites which gain a lot of
power and abuse it for their own gain; the resulting anger of the
people is then exploited by populists.

The way to improve political systems in order to reduce this kind of
phenomenon is not to give up on the ideal of democracy, but to
implement it more effectively, so that there will be less abuse of
power by elites, and therefore less public anger, and therefore less
opportunity for populists who will try to exploit such anger whenever
they get the chance.

I believe that a very promising opportunity for implementing democracy
more effectively is available through the Internet and through the
logic tree methods of Eli Goldratt’s Theory of Constraints, ideally
with some adaptations of the latter to make them even more suitable
for supporting public political discourse being conducted via the
Internet: I see great opportunities for improving the quality and depth
and inclusiveness of public discourse, which will do a lot to make
various structures of governance, including formal state-based
structures of democracy, more democratic in the sense of reducing the
degree to which governance is driven and controlled by elites.

> Hence, the appropriation of the term “democratic” by JNC

Where is any “appropriation of the term ‘democratic’ by JNC”???

Using a word in the sense of its well-established literal meaning is
simply using the word.

Just like many others are also using the word.

While it is true that we are pro-democracy, there are many other
people and groups who are also pro-democracy.

Even here on this list, where there is a lot of hostility towards
pro-democracy ideas and towards the more active advocates of
pro-democracy ideas, it is not only JNC members who argue in favor of

> can mean any of these things:
> A) It is a purely rhetorical ploy that trades on the fact that
> “democracy” is like “motherhood” and “God” and no one can claim to be
> against it. Decmoratic = good, and whatever is politically good is
> democratic. This of course ignores all the pathologies of pure
> democracy
> B) It is a cover word for the reassertion of the authority of
> existing states over internet governance, which means not only
> “democracy” in the classical 20th century nation-state sense but also
> the bastardized UN usage which means one country, one vote, even if
> 2/3 of the nations voting are not internally democratic
> C) It represents a kind of naïve belief that the democratic
> institutions of the nation-state can be translated easily into a
> globalized framework. But if so, why do we hear so little about what
> form these new institutions will take, how they will be designed, how
> they will avoid abuses of power? When MG or NB talk about
> “democratic” regulation of Internet businesses (and of the rest of
> us, inevitably), what regulators are they talking about and what law
> do they operate under and to which courts are they accountable?

Curiously, the literal meaning of the word is not even included in
this, obviously highly politically motivated, list of possible
meanings. That in spite of my repeated insistence over the past few
days, here on this very mailing list, that we mean the word in its
literal sense and not as code for something else.

> I suspect that their thinking is a confused mosh of all three of
> these, but the immediate effect of their ‘democratic’ advocacy is
> basically represented by B.

I assure you that our thinking is not “a confused mosh”, and I would
expect the above discussion to make this abundantly clear.

If the concern of possible misinterpretation of our “‘democratic’
advocacy” to the effect of your point “B” is a real concern (as opposed
to mere populistic scaremongering), please propose words to express the
literal meaning of “democratic” in a way that will avoid that risk of
misinterpretation which you claim exists on the basis of using the
word “democratic”.

There is unavoidably always the risk that some people will misinterpret
words, for example because they were misinformed about the perspective
and intentions of those who use the words, or because they act in bad
faith with an intention of distorting the words of political opponents.
This risk can be minimized by using words which are as clear as
possible, but it can never be completely avoided.

On the other hand, some choices of words are simply not clear enough
even in the context of well-informed good-faith dialogue in which each
side makes a reasonable and honest effort at trying to understand what
the other side is saying, and responses are given on the basis of that.

I don’t think that the current wave of claims about the meaning of the
word “democratic” not being clear enough is justified, but to the extent
that such claims might be justified, that should be a simple enough
problem to solve: I will be happy to start using any word or phrase
which expresses the literal meaning of the word “democratic” more
clearly than the word “democratic” itself does.


For JNC, “democratic” simply means: democratic. The claims of @qirtaiba to the contrary are false.

[Update: A detailed account of the failed consensus process in Paris is here. Further discussion which includes an in-depth explanation of the literal meaning of the word “democratic” is here.]

Jeremy Malcolm of EFF, tweeting as @qirtaiba, has made the following claim on twitter in the context of the UNESCO Connecting the Dots conference in Paris:

Pondering whether to object to JNC’s addition of “democratic” before multi-stakeholder which is code for maintaining primacy of governments

More recently he has also repeated essentially the same claim in a blogpost.

However, what Jeremy claims is the view of the Just Net Coalition (JNC) on “democratic multi-stakeholderism” is not in any way an actual position of JNC.

For JNC, “democratic” simply means: democratic.

We insist that just like governance at national levels must be democratic (which has been internationally accepted as a human right, even if there are countries where this is not currently implemented satisfactorily), any and all global governance must also be democratic.

JNC’s foundational document, the Delhi Declaration, states this as follows:

Globally, there is a severe democratic deficit with regard to Internet governance. It is urgently required to establish appropriate platforms and mechanisms for global governance of the Internet that are democratic and participative.

We are opposed to any kind of system in which multistakeholderism is implemented in a way that is not democratic.

We are not opposed to participative mechanisms for global governance of the Internet. In fact we explicitly demand, in our foundational document, mechanisms for global governance of the Internet which are democratic and participative.

This demand has nothing whatsoever to do with what Jeremy claims is our goal, which he describes as a “limited type of government-led rulemaking”. That would clearly not be participative.

We insist that Internet governance must be democratic and participative.

Now, Jeremy could perhaps be excused in thinking that “democratic” must necessarily be meant as a reference to governments if no proposal had been made of any model of governance which is both democratic and participative. However that is not the case. In fact it is part of the public record that Jeremy is well-aware since 2012 of my proposal for the development of public policy documents by means of global open-participation multistakeholder processes, where I propose that it would be national parliaments which make decisions about policy options where no consensus is reached: Jeremy himself invited me to present this proposal at the initial “Best Bits” meeting in Baku, Azerbaijan. (The current version of this poposal is here.)

[In case someone might be wondering whether Jeremy might simply have forgotten about my concrete proposal for making Internet governance inclusive as well as democratic: I don’t think so, because Jeremy’s other recent blogpost is so full of factually false assertions in relation to JNC and some of the most active people in JNC (including myself) that explaining it all as an honest mistake is in my view clearly no longer possible. A point-by-point response to that older blogpost is here.]

There may be other possible appropaches to designing governance processes so that they are democratic as well as participative. This is a topic that needs further discussion.

In my view, the central question in relation to open-participation multistakeholder processes, which makes them democratic or non-democratic, is this: What happens if no consensus is reached? In the current system of Internet governance, lack of consensus means too often that no governance decision is taken and therefore businesses are free to act with unlimited irresponsibility, in whatever way they choose (or are compelled to act by state surveillance demands, which are in many cases in direct violation of human rights). As a result, the current governance system (as a whole) for the Internet is not democratic.

Human Rights Aspects of Free Software

Richard Stallman has kindly provided some feedback to my recent blogpost The Internet Social Forum and a Vision for Actually Achieving The Internet That We Want, in which he claims that free software is now a human right. I found this a very interesting and thought-provoking comment, with which I agree after some reflections and with some nuances. Richard Stallman’s comments and my response are given below:

[Here is a text snippet from my blogpost]
> > In the many years in which I have now been part of the free
> > software movement (in this context, the word “free” refers to
> > freedom, not price – more on this below), I have never seen
> > “software freedom” as an end in itself, but I have always seen it
> > primarily as a critically important precondition

[What follows is Richard Stallman’s comments]
> It is both!
> We’re entitled to control the programs that do our computing so we can
> do that computing the way we wish. Even when the program you use has
> nothing malicious and its functionality is basically honest, you
> should still have the right to change it.
> In addition, that control it is a precondition for other freedoms, as
> you say. (See and
> The way I put it is that human rights depend on each other, and
> free software is now one of them.

[What follows is my response]
I must admit that I had until reading this never thought of free
software as a human right. But after some reflection I agree now.

There are several aspects to this. One aspect is that I now agree that
the principle “software should be free” should be asserted as a human
right, specifically as a human right in the category of economic, social
and cultural rights, as opposed to the category of civil and political

These two categories of human rights correspond to the two central
human rights treaties which are the foundational pillars of
international human rights law: The International Covenant on Economic,
Social and the Cultural Rights (ICESCR)
and the International Covenant
on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)
. The difference between these two
categories of human rights is that implementing civil and political
rights can and must be done at the speed of adopting appropriate laws,
while the realization of economic, social and cultural rights can and
should appropriately be seen as progressive. The ICESCR states in
article 2(1): “Each State Party to the present Covenant undertakes to
take steps, individually and through international assistance and
co-operation, especially economic and technical, to the maximum of its
available resources, with a view to achieving progressively the full
realization of the rights recognized in the present Covenant by all
appropriate means, including particularly the adoption of legislative

By asserting that the principle “software should be free” should be
seen as one of the economic, social and cultural rights, I’m asserting
that governments have a responsibility to ensure that all proprietary
software is going to be either turned into free software or replaced by
free software, while admitting that doing so may take some time.

It is possible for legislation to force all computers which are sold in
a country to come with a free software operating system and with a free
software email program, because fortunately free software operating
systems and free software email programs exist already.

By contrast, a law which simply insists that all software must be free,
and that proprietary software is illegal, would not automatically cause
free software to come into existence immediately which meets all of the
various needs for which no suitable free software exists yet. In the
absence of effective measures aimed at making free software available
for all important needs, the effect of such a law would be that the
people who live in the concerned country would lose the ability to
perform certain tasks which may be important to them. This would in my
view be very much against the general spirit of the International
Covenant on Economic, Social and the Cultural Rights.

A much better approach will be to declare proprietary software to be
illegal only progressively, incrementally, whenever free software has
become available for a given task. I would in fact expect that kind of
approach to be sufficient for ensuring that proprietary software goes
out of fashion completely.

Of course the problem with asserting that something is a human right is
that while we can make use of our human right of freedom of speech to
make this assertion, doing so does not in itself add the assertion to
the body of international human rights law, nor to set of human rights
that the people in any country are effectively able to insist on. This
body of law can be expanded through the negotiation of additional human
rights treaties (which does not appear to be politically realistic for
the topic of free software for the near future) and it can also be
expanded through building awareness of that in the context of today’s
world, the existing, broadly accepted international human rights law
already has quite significant implications in relation to free
software. I see this latter tactic as a realistic and promising way

In particular, I would say that in today’s world, each of the following
human rights which have all been formally recognized in the
International Covenant on Economic, Social and the Cultural Rights
implies the principle “software should be free”: The right of everyone
to the opportunity to gain his living by work which he freely chooses
or accepts [article 6(1)] and to the enjoyment of just and favorable
conditions of work [article 7]; the right of everyone to education
[article 13(1)]; and the right of everyone to enjoy the benefits of
scientific progress and its applications [article 15(1)(b)].

Furthermore, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
also has implications in relation to free software, and it is that kind
of implications that I was thinking of when I wrote my blogpost on the
vision for the Internet Social Forum. These implications of the ICCPR
are narrower in scope than the implications for free software which
follow from the ICESCR. For example it is an implication of the ICCPR
that mass surveillance must not be tolerated. Ending mass surveillance
can in my view be achieved more quickly than achieving software freedom
in full generality.

[What follows is further comments from Richard Stallman, with an embedded quotation from my blogpost]
> The specific prohibitions that you propose are too weak, though:
> > For example, I think that it
> > should be forbidden to sell computers that come with software that
> > sends personal communications by default in unencrypted form.
> It also shouldn’t have any nonfree software, because that could
> be listening to you.

[What follows is my response]
I agree that the easiest and most straightforward way of avoiding to
have any software that spies on me is based on avoiding to have any
nonfree software.

However, there are tasks which are relatively specialized but still
important (for those who perform these tasks) for which no free
software is available yet. In all such examples that I’m aware of, it
is possible to isolate these blobs of untrustworthy proprietary software
by encapsulating them in a kind of sandbox (typically a so-called
“virtual machine”) which ensures that whatever the software that runs
in the sandbox might be doing, it cannot be spying on what happens
outside of the sandbox. Of course the software which implements the
sandbox must itself be trustworthy. The same applies to the “host”
operating system on which the “virtual machine” sandbox software runs.
But if the “virtual machine” sandbox software is implemented and
configured correctly, neither an untrustworthy proprietary application
program which runs within the sandbox nor an untrustworthy proprietary
operating system which might have to be installed within the sandbox
(because the proprietary application program requires it) will be able
to spy on anything that goes on outside of the sandbox.

[What follows is another quotation from my blogpost, and then further comments from Richard Stallman.]
> > Likewise
> > it should be forbidden to sell computers that come with software
> > for privacy or security sensitive tasks (such as sending or
> > receiving email) without making all of the relevant source code
> > available.
> It is not enough just to make the software available; that alone
> doesn’t give us control over it.

[What follows is my response.]
I agree. But source code availability is very clearly and very
obviously a necessary precondition for trustworthiness of the software
in relation to the human right to communications privacy.

[Further comments from Richard Stallman follow.]
> Also, note that use of the computer involves trusting much of the
> operating system for _every_ task, so all of that needs to be free
> too.

[Again, what follows is my response.]
I absolutely agree that whenever a program is used on a computer for
any privacy or security sensitive task, the operating system on which
that program runs must be considered to be part of the “software for
privacy or security sensitive tasks”. The same applies to the operating
system on any computer with a built-in microphone (this includes all
mobile telephones) or with a “webcam”.

[Another comments from Richard Stallman follows.]
> And if there are any nonfree programs, they could be spying on you
> too.

[And now again my response.]
At this point I would raise the nitpick that this doesn’t strictly
follow. Whether a program is free or not is a matter of source code
availability together and licensing conditions. Whether a program can be
trusted to not spy on me is a matter of source code availability and of
whether I can reasonably assume that someone would already have raised
the alarm if the program had a capability for spying on the user of
the computer. Also, as discussed above, in some contexts and for some
kinds of untrustworthy programs, it is possible to use a “sandbox” to
avoid spying risks related to untrustworthy programs.

[Another quotation from my blogpost follows, and then further comments from Richard Stallman.]
> > also measures must be taken to make it unlikely
> > that there would be any hidden “back doors” to access the
> > encrypted communications, through which the illegal (and in fact
> > human rights violating) mass surveillance for example by the NSA
> > could still continue.
> Any nonfree program could have a back door; the users can’t detect it,
> and couldn’t fix it.

[And now again my response.]
The main requirement for users to be able to detect any back doors is
source code availability together with the ability to verify that the
source code corresponds to the binary.

While as a free software advocate I of course agree that it is
extremely important for users to be able to fix undesirable properties
of any software, in relation to the problem of mass surveillance I
would insist that all of the software which is relevant to the problem
of mass surveillance (which is a quite broad category that includes all
software that is not carefully isolated from sensitive data streams by
means of sandboxes or equivalent measures) must be verified to not
contain any back doors in the first place.

[Now Richard Stallman’s final remark follows.]
> To achieve these specific goals requires insisting that all the
> software be free.

[And again my response follows.]
I agree to this to a very large extent, modulo the possibility of
encapsulating some proprietary software in sandboxes, which is an
aspect that is more technical than what I considered acceptable for
the broad explanation of my vision for the Internet Social Forum, for
which I wanted to make sure that it could be understood reasonably
easily also by people who have no technical background at all.


AUP provisions forbidding critical discourse

There’s currently a lot of buzz about Google’s decision to change, on quite short notice, the terms of service for it’s popular “Blogger” service to effectively censor blogs with “adult” image and video content.

Independently of the substantive questions in relation to issues of online nudity
(which in my view are not nearly as easy or clear-cut as many people seem to think), it is in my eyes very wrong of Google to break incoming links on a whim like they’re doing here.

Still more upsetting however are AUP practices of some other companies.

Here’s an email which I just sent to CtrlS Datacenters Ltd, which boasts having “Asia’s largest Tier 4 datacenter”, in relation to their AUP:


your AUP (which abbreviation by the way properly means "acceptable use
policy", your current AUP gets that wrong in two different ways)
contains very unacceptable provisions.

The most serious problem is that you seem to want your customers to
agree that on their hosted websites nothing would be included that says
anything critical about anyone or about anything, as your definition
of "Defamatory content" includes "any website content that ... may give
an individual, business, product, services, group, government or nation
a negative image."

Please read up on the actual meaning of "defamation", and think hard and
carefully about what it means for democratic discourse when factually
justifiable criticism is forbidden by AUPs.

In view of your AUP provisions, I currently cannot recommend your
services to the organization which has asked me to advise them in the
choice of a hosting service provider.

Best regards
Norbert Bollow

The Internet Social Forum and a Vision for Actually Achieving The Internet That We Want

[For some important clarifications, see also the more recent post “Human Rights Aspects of Free Software”.]

In the many years in which I have now been part of the free software movement (in this context, the word “free” refers to freedom, not price – more on this below), I have never seen “software freedom” as an end in itself, but I have always seen it primarily as a critically important precondition for more fundamental objectives such as achieving and preserving privacy of personal communications and other principles of social and economic justice.

However I have until quite recently failed to see how the free software movement could be effectively linked with a movement for social and economic justice that could reasonably be expected to gain significant popular support. Without that, and the corresponding political influence, I don’t see how the necessary changes in the legal environment of the Internet could reasonably be expected to be made. In my view, such changes are clearly needed. For example, I think that it should be forbidden to sell computers that come with software that sends personal communications by default in unencrypted form. Likewise it should be forbidden to sell computers that come with software for privacy or security sensitive tasks (such as sending or receiving email) without making all of the relevant source code available. After all, encryption alone does not do anything to make a communication system trustworthy; also measures must be taken to make it unlikely that there would be any hidden “back doors” to access the encrypted communications, through which the illegal (and in fact human rights violating) mass surveillance for example by the NSA could still continue.

Nota bene, I am not talking here about securing communications against a determined and resourceful attacker who has a specific interest for example in “wiretapping” a particular person’s communications. That kind of security work has to address a much more difficult set of problems. Protecting the privacy of “who communicates with whom” communications metadata against an adversary like the NSA which listens to Internet communication links in many locations all around the world is also difficult for technical reasons. But ending the NSA’s worldwide mass surveillance of the content of private communications is relatively easy. It requires political will and some technical work, but it does not require any serious technical innovation. The NSA’s mass surveillance of communications content could have been ended long ago in any and all countries wanting to prevent it.

Of course, the issues related to communications privacy are not the only important social justice concerns related to the Internet.

Another centrally important set of concerns is related to concentration of social and economic power, a problem which exists not only in the context of the Internet, but which can become worse through the Internet with its “network effects” and the corresponding “winner-take-all economics”.

It is especially in this context of demanding social justice, and of protesting against the kind of agenda that the WEF is associated with, that I find the idea of an Internet Social Forum very inspiring. It gives me hope that it is possible to create a movement of collaboration between the social justice movement and the free software movement that will re-design the Internet’s socio-technical system and, after having figured out what is “the Internet that we want”, implement it (of course building onto the very substantial body of good free software which exists already.)

When I talk about the need for a “re-design” of the Internet’s socio-technical system, I am not talking about any kind of process of centralized power that would have to be conducted for example by a national government or by an international organization such as the ITU. Quite on the contrary, I believe that it will be possible to do this in a way that allows the decision-making power which shapes this “re-design” of the Internet and of how it can be used to be truly “bottom-up” (i.e. in the hands of a large number of individuals each volunteering some time, together with a large number of small businesses) in clear contrast to the significantly top-down situation we have today, where way too much is in the hands of a small number of overly powerful companies which are in collusion with some (or maybe even many) governments through the “surveillance-industrial complex”.

As I see things, the way to achieve this is precisely to conduct the kind of discourse of figuring out what is “the Internet that we want” which is foreseen for the Internet Social Forum, while convincing many of the people and groups that make up the free software movement to participate.

Without such involvement of those who can be expected to implement good ideas that emerge from the discussions in software for concrete, practical use, the Internet Social Forum would in my eyes ultimately be futile. Internet-related ideas become realities only through implementation in actual software.

It is essentially important in this context that we must be aware of the realities of socio-economic power in relation to software.

The most fundamental of these concerns are those which are addressed in the four freedoms of the free software definition: Does someone have the power to control how the software is to be used and for what purpose? Who has the power to know exactly what the software does? Who has the power to give the software to others? Who has the power to change the software?

A program is free software when all of these four questions of power are answered firmly in the direction of affirming that all users of the software are assured of the corresponding freedom.

In the context of the need to “re-design” the Internet with “bottom-up” decision-making power, I would insist that the main software components should not only be free software, but they should be what is referred to as copylefted free software, which means that all modified and extended versions of the program are required to be free software as well. Otherwise it is far too easy for any well-funded company to take software which a bottom-up community has developed and embrace-and-extend it into a proprietary product.

Then there are also concerns about matters of socio-economic power in relation to the Internet which do not directly translate at all into something that can be written into the licensing conditions of particular computer programs. Building “the Internet that we want” on copylefted free software is necessary, but not sufficient. For example, there are also concerns about visibility: If it takes a significant amount of money to effectively market a software product to a large audience, that in itself could potentially lead to undesirable concentrations of socio-economic power, and there may be a need for further counter-measures in addition to insisting that it should all be copylefted free software.

There are in particular serious concerns about Internet-based services for searching, social networking, etc, the natural economics of the situation strongly favor monopolization. Creating decentralized free software alternatives is possible, but more difficult and therefore at a clear economic disadvantage to the proprietary software based monopolistic firms which are dominating their respective markets today. I do not see how free software alternatives could be expected to compete successfully in today’s environment. Therefore I think that political movements are needed in each country which push for what needs to be done at the political level to make decentralized solutions succeed in the marketplace. This is critically important in particular in relation to these services around searching and social networking which are so influential in regard to which commercial offers of products and services will be found on the Internet by potential customers, and which are simply not found by potential customers.

There matters should in my opinion be discussed at the Internet Social Forum, and they should be discussed in a way which is result-oriented and inspiring both in regard to technical work and in regard to political work.

The Case for Human Rights

In a recent essay titled “The case against human rights”, University of Chicago Law School professor Eric Posner argues that “human rights law has failed to accomplish its objectives” and that “a radically different approach is long overdue.”

I strongly disagree, and in fact I’m amazed to see this kind of attack on human rights law. Well perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised given how also democracy is under attack by an anti-democratic ideology of multistakeholderism. (I don’t think that multistakeholder processes must necessarily be anti-democratic, in fact I have proposed a definition of democratic multistakeholderism, but the particular ideology of multistakeholderism which is currently dominant in the Internet governance discourse is certainly anti-democratic. For more information on this threat to democracy, see the recent statement of the Just Net Coalition, “The Caravan Has Set Out for a Neo-liberal Capture of Global Governance”.)

That said, some of Posner’s points are valid, especially where he speaks of the kind of human rights discourse which is in fact a form of cultural and legal imperialism. That is a real problem, and in regard to that I agree with Posner’s concluding sentence that “a humbler approach is long overdue.”

It is true that appropriately and correctly citing international human rights law is often not easy, and the discourse is not helped by the fact that in mass media based public discourse, there is generally no room for the important subtleties around which aspects of the internationally recognized human rights are to be accepted as absolute, and which aspects can be legitimately restricted in view of other concerns. Posner’s claim that international human rights law “is hopelessly ambiguous” is simply not true. But it is a difficult topic area, and even when human rights advocates take the trouble of writing up careful arguments, the media will generally not report about the careful arguments. I have some personal experience of what I speak about here. For example, Tages-Anzeiger, one of the leading newspapers in Switzerland, has just cited me as claiming that a certain Internet related measure which is being discussed in one of the processes of the Swiss political system would be a human rights violation. (The article is here; it’s in German.) In my answer to the journalist’s question, I had also given him an explanation which justifies my claim, but unsurprisingly that explanation did not make it into the journalist’s article. Fortunately, the Internet supports not only mass media but also niche media for example in the form of blogs, and I have been able to put my explanation online independently. (It’s at, in German.)

I think that Posner would probably not be going nearly so far in his (in my opinion vastly overreaching) criticism of human rights law if he had had the opportunity to live in Swtzerland for a while (which is where I live) and see how human rights law is an indispensable part of our legal system. When a Swiss law violates a human right, as I believe it is currently the case with the law on telecommunications surveillance, the one available recourse is to take a legal case to the European Court of Human Rights. (Some information on a legal challenge to Swiss data retention, in which I am involved as one of the complainants, is here.)

More generally, in an increasingly globalized world, emphasizing those principles of governance which are absolute and universal is increasingly and fundamentally important. We cannot afford to follow Posner and look for “a radically different approach.” Rather, we must improve the understanding of human rights law among generally educated people, so that the discourse becomes less confused and so that the temptation to claim that international human rights law “is hopelessly ambiguous” will no longer be there. This applies in particular in the context of Internet governance where purely national governance is simply not an option. In the Internet governance realm, the socioeconomics of network effects make it largely unavoidable that some kind of global consolidation and then top-down process plays out. The question is therfore mainly just whether at the top of that top-down process are the economic interests of profit-oriented corporations and associated imperialistic interests, or whether there is a reasonably democratic public policy process based on the principle of primacy of human rights.

Development impacts of “broadband”

DIRSI (Diálogo Regional sobre Sociedad de la Información) has released an important research report examining the causal relationships between broadband adoption and poverty reduction in Latin America. Hopefully this report will be widely read, as it IMO has the potential to contribute significantly to increasing the level of realism and honesty in the “ICT for development” discourse.

Cybersecurity as Realpolitik

In his BlackHat talk Cybersecurity as Realpolitik, Dan Geer proposes a set of very good ideas on security related Internet governance topics, and argues them well.

What I think is missing in this exposition is that other aspect of Realpolitik: figuring out how much of it is politically feasible, and then getting that done. Which involves in pushing for what is good and right as strongly as possible, in a very pragmatically goal-oriented way.

At the political level, that may well be a task for the Just Net Coalition. In addition to pushing for this kind of reasonable policies at the various fronts of public policy making, I think that there is a need to create a movement of companies which put the principles in practice, demonstrating economic feasibility, before it can become realistically politically possible to get these principles adopted at the level of national and international law.

Democratic multistakeholderism

Taking inspiration from Avri Doria’s definition proposal for “multistakeholderism”, I think that “democratic multistakeholderism” can be defined as follows:

The practice of forms of participatory democracy that allow for all those who have a stake
and who have the inclination, to participate in the deliberation of issues and the
recommendation of solutions. These recommendations may be addressed to the decision-makers
for formal democratic public policy decisions (such as legislative decisions by parliaments
and democratically accountable executive decisions of governments) or they may provide
guidance to those who are responsible for the implementation of democratic public policy
decisions (which includes the private sector).

Democratic multistakeholder processes are a demand of the NetMundial outcome document, see also the JNC response.

For further thoughts on multistakeholder processes, with particular emphasis on the need for explicitly maintaining a democratic context, see my joint paper with Richard Hill, Thoughts on Best Practices for Multistakeholder Participation Mechanisms.

Fears and fatalism

image of a huge billboard
In San Fracisco, there is reportedly a huge billboard which warns workers they’ll be replaced by iPads if they demand a fair wage.

Actually I think that that billboard not only plays on the fears of underpaid workers of possibly losing what little income they have. The billboard also plays on fears which are maybe widespread among the general public that excessive computerization of everyday life can lead to a loss of quality of life. And the billboard also seeks to promote a kind of fatalistic attitude of “the people who are able to earn a low wage only are screwed no matter what public policy decisions might be taken, so don’t bother!”

I’m getting the impression that such fears, and plays on fears, and fatalism have become the dominant aspects of ICT related public policy.

Like it is the case with this billboard, this phenomonen seems to be largely driven by excessive influence of business interests on the public discourse.

Many of the ICT related social justice challenges are inherently global problems, and correspondingly a globally coordinated effort is needed to counteract the influence of those who seek profit maximization at the expense of social sustainability. This is what the Just Net Coalition is all about, where I’m serving as a co-convenor.