Imagining the Internet

“Imagining the Internet: policy challenges”. Public lecture by Professor Robin Mansell

On 16 October Professor Robin Mansell gave a public lecture at LSE entitled Imagining the Internet: Policy Challenges  (video and audio recordings are available here). The lecture presented her new book, Imagining the Internet, published by Oxford University Press 2012. It was followed by a reception and book-signing. The event was liveblogged by Dr. Nick Anstead and discussed on Twitter (#lsemansell).

The lecture provided a framework for the analysis of conflicting interests and challenges around policies for the development and regulation of the Internet. Professor Mansell asked fundamental questions about the policy-making process and the way we understand the role of the Internet in our lives. She suggested that if we want to respond to these questions we should investigate what values are informing our thoughts about the Internet and life in an Internet-mediated environment.

Her analysis draws on Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor’s concept of the “social imaginary”, which focuses on understanding how people imagine their social existence and their expectations of social life, and how imagination and expectations relate to social reality. Mansell asks how we imagine our social existence in the age of the Internet and of networks, when all out movements can be followed, everything except our thoughts monitored and watched.

According to Mansell, in order to understand the structure of conflicts around policy making we should follow the history of ideas, values and norms around the role of information and communication technologies (ICT), and how some of these are more dominant than others in our approaches to ICT.

Mansell starts by analysing the development of Internet imaginaries from the pre-Internet age, when people were primarily occupied with the consequences of the development of information processing and how this might enable better control over the physical environment. One of the central figures and drivers of this imaginary was the American scientist and visionary, Vannevar Bush, who suggested the idea of memex.

In the present, we can see an Internet imaginary which focuses on digital content production and sharing, as well as the participation of Internet users in these processes. According to Mansell, people assume that user-generated content is liberating us. There is a widely held notion that bottom-up participatory action enabled by the Internet can bring much good and is responsible for many positive social developments. Mansell provided a number of examples of projects relying on ICT that contribute to social good, including “ICT for development” in developing regions, the distribution of computers to children in Africa, the role of ICT in facilitating the Arab Spring protests, the mapping of the Kibera slums in Kenya and the role of crowdsourcing in emergency response to wildfires in Russia.

However, she also expressed some concerns about the role of ICT: “What I am worried about is too strong an assumption that all collective action is supportive of democratic action. There is an assumption that e-mobilization is always a good thing. While this can be so in front of the screen, behind the screen there are algorithms that are not accountable and this can be used for antidemocratic purposes.”

Moreover, beyond the examples of the positive role of ICT, there is a clash between certain norms and the understanding of the Internet’s role that inform policy-making. The questions that should be of concern are not only about particular functions of ICT, but who sets the norms and conventions for how we interact through networks and whose norms should prevail in decisions about policies.

Both the founder of the Internet, Vince Cerf, and the inventor of the World-Wide Web, Tim Berners Lee, have championed open government, open data, transparency and democracy as following from the development of the Internet and argued that in democracies no restrictions should be imposed on the Internet. At the same time, however, there are many highly contested issues, such as copyright, digital privacy and online security.  For instance, what kind of music sharing and what types of online sharing should be defined as illegal and considered as digital piracy? Often this debate is seen as between major industries and individuals. In the case of major companies like Facebook or Google - whether or not commercial value is the major driver of the rules for content sharing and online access - the way they set norms for uploading content to their sites reflects what they assume is good for us. There are some intermediary actors, such as Internet service providers (ISPs) that are concerned about their commercial liability and they will stand on the side of Internet users only as long as this serves their interest.

A significant controversy is also taking place in the field of safety, security and privacy. The British government has drafted a new communication data bill that will enable UK authorities to monitor whatever traffic they wish There is a clash between those who value security and those who are concerned primarily about privacy.

In light of these clashes, the right question to ask is about the norms and values that are shaping the future of the Internet. What is the main driver for policy making – is it the techno-economic approach or and approach which considers social interests? Mansell asks: “Shall we sit back and see what happens or should we try to think about how enduring conflicts are being resolved? Do we have only one choice – to adapt to the prevailing norms and values of the Internet age or perish?”

Mansell identifies two major conflicting Internet imaginaries. One in which information is seen as a commercial value and alternative imaginaires where information should be free to share. According to the former, copyright enforcement creates the best incentives for production - people produce more content because they can receive a monetary reward. But, at the same time, according to those favouring this imaginary, the Internet should not be regulated because it is a free market and intervention is inconsistent with rights to freedom of expression. The alternative imaginaries suggest that the best incentives for production can be achieved through open information sharing. This is supported by scholars who believe that sharing information without constraints makes the Internet flourish and therefore that restrictions should be loosened and the Internet should not be regulated.

The imaginaries of social movement activists and commercial, market-driven idealists are similarities insofar as both claim they are fostering a good and just society. But while they share goals, they have opposite views about particular aspects of how these goals can be achieved, since they rely on different norms and values.

Mansell argues that the only way to have an open and democratic debate about the Internet’s development is by addressing the norms and values that are informing particular decisions and policy measures. This calls for improvements in accountability structures at all levels. So far, the majority of decisions is left to unaccountable groups, whether software designers or social movements and corporations. Mansell suggests that we need to look closely at the norms and values of all these groups including state actors.

Mansell argues that much talk in the policy domain is about tactics. It is important to deal with the tactical level, for example particular aspects of legislation. But policy debate at the tactical level needs to be complemented by discussion at the strategic level about the development of the Internet - where we will find ourselves several decades from now, how will our information environment look then?

We should move on from debating whether or not the Internet should be regulated and focus on how new forms of accountability can be achieved through the development of new forms of both top-down and bottom-up governance. New structures of accountability should particularly address the increasing role of online automation in daily life, which is providing increasingly less space for human control.

In conclusion, Mansell suggested that, a major part of the Internet debate focuses on policy measures, without considering the conflicts about which norms and values should prevail and the accountability of decision makers. “We will still face enduring conflict among those who set the norms”.  Mansell suggested that addressing these conflicts requires that public be able to “challenge ideas that are not a part of the public discourse”. She asked the audience to think about “how to improve accountability in the Internet age and how governance can be more effective.” This is essential because the debates are not solely about technology.  They are about people and about the next generation of human beings.