Does civic society need Martha Lane Fox as online champion?

There needs to be more to the net than just data scraping and surveillance. heyrocker, CC BY

In his iconic Discworld series, the late Terry Pratchett offered two useful social observations: first, that dragons affect the value of personal property and, second, that in order to avoid tyranny we should always question who guards the guards.

The second is relevant to the points made by Martha Lane Fox who, in her recent Richard Dimbleby Lecture, called for the creation of an civic institute to “examine the ethical and moral issues posed by the internet”.

Martha Lane Fox. The Cabinet Office/Crown Copyright

Lane Fox envisages her institute as guardians to watch over us everyday users of the world wide web, and to guard against the domination of corporations, government censorship, and self-serving EU legislative agendas that provide only weak data regulation and protection.

These concerns are not new, and are shared by many who care about the future of the internet. Grandees such as Sir Tim Berners-Lee and his Web Foundation and the W3C, have already campaigned for a more “pro-human” web as it passes its 25th birthday, one that is better suited to digital rights. What’s been called a Web We Want where users have influence over a digital future intended for everyone.

Free people pull in many directions

This is all very well, but the internet is relatively ungoverned: virtual, supranational territory that falls outside the boundaries of nation-states, and which lacks the democratic mechanisms and social protections that they afford.

Claims of a flat, open, and egalitarian internet are misguided. Where there is one rule for one user and one rule for another, social Darwinism – the survival of the fittest – ensues. The web echoes and magnifies the world’s gross cultural relativity and widespread inequality. Its transformative power has reached only half the world’s population, a fact that reinforces the power, money, gender, and class-based inequalities rife offline. Any civic internet institute without major financial support and global political backing will struggle to make a difference.

Such an institute would be forced to consider how the many free-ranging individuals, from many levels of society, which shape the web may react to proposed changes to a platform that is a major part of their lives. Increasingly, online behaviour defines us as individuals, yet direction and control of the internet is held by a technical oligarchy.

So Lane Fox’s call is not limited to the implications of what the web could bring, or what it has already brought – good or bad. It is also an investigation of the scope of human imagination, looking towards what we want the web to be by establishing a set of rules and agreements on decision-making – what Berners-Lee has called an online magna carta. The implications of the internet of things, of the rapid growth of government surveillance, and surveillance-based, data-trawling business models all play in to this.

An institute that aimed to provide a civic counterweight to corporate and government power would have to evaluate where that power lies on the web, the different views of digital privacy and ownership and use of data.

A user’s right to control their data and privacy might require laws or regulation to support that right, ensuring that one is never allowed to treat another as merely a means to their own ends. Then again, users could agree to surrender their data in exchange for services – a deal that need not be Faustian, merely utilitarian. The fact that the mechanisms for this exchange – cash for data, essentially – already exist means the services get built and we all benefit.

Even benevolent, technocratic tyranny must be watched for. davidmasters, CC BY

Standing on the shoulders of giants

Importantly, Lane Fox’s call is concerned with more than technicalities, and is focused on how to strengthen individual freedoms on the web. After all, citizenship emerges from civil, social and political rights and responsibilities – extending this to the web is not such a great leap, but will require wide support and agreement. In fact this may be more important than any institute – an antidote to the concerns of power and dominance that could be as important as movements for gender equality and universal suffrage.

If the internet has technocratic forums such as the W3C, IETF and Internet Society, perhaps society at large should have a representative body to compare to these technocratic ones, to push participatory governance and keep digital citizenry alive to reflect the very human rights of the billions of internet users.

There are already organisations striving to bring understanding to the tangle of power and rights online, including the University of Southampton’s Web Science Institute, the Oxford Internet Institute, and others in the Web Science Trust network.

So perhaps another new institute is not what we need, but instead greater support for those that already exist, and better links between industry, academia and government. This needs to be strengthened against a background of increasing individual digital freedoms, because only this way are we going to be able to innovative and educate our way to a better web for all. These together can engineer new digital leaders for tomorrow, creating online champions for our human rights.