An Archbishop for the Internet Age

The speach for which the Archbishop of Canterbury has been attacked goes to the heart of legal and cultural issues that have to be addressed if our globalised, multi-jursidictional, multi- cultural, global information society is to survive, let alone flourish.

It is hard going but I do urge you to read the full text. I watched a tape (for once very much easier) and am looking for a podcast.

The media is carrying pods of simplistic attacks on what the Archbishop said – but not what he actually said.

I wonder why?

Perhaps it is because his comments on “primitivists” apply to secular editors and progressive politicians every bit as much as they do to medieval fundamentalist reilgious bigots.

I particularly liked “there can be no blank cheques for unexamined scruples”.

The Archbishop’s comments on the reality of multiple religious and secular jurisdictions and the need to enable genuine choices of jurisdiction also apply to the many competing claims to the local “monopoly of legitimate violence” (established by 19th century nation states) from an growing plethora of local regulators and tribunals as well as from those claiming supranational or extra-territorial powers, such as the European Commision or the United States .

His thoughtful comments on the pressures that can remove genuine choice reminded me of the increasing “ghettoisation” of the Internet, facilated by social networking as groups of likeminded “friends” reinforce their mutual prejudices and drive out free-thinkers.

The Internet may well, overall, be a great force for good but it is also being used for profound evil.

And I cannot even find a podcast of a speach that I believe earns Dr Rowan Williams a place alongside Thomas a Beckett and Cranmer. I very much hope that he has indeed lit a candie of debate that will not be put out.

In the mean time, can anyone find a copy of the video or sound track on the web?

Join the conversation


Send me notifications when other members comment.

Please create a username to comment.

Everyone faces the occasional problem when their conscience conflicts with the laws of the land.

These conflicts arise for religious people and non-religious people alike. They arise in the UK, and they arise elsewhere. They arise now and they always have done.

Always. They arose in the time of Jesus Christ and His advice was to render unto Caesar what is Caesar's. By which He surely meant that He was in favour of equality before the law.

The problem for Rowan Williams, I submit, is that he appears to have said something that Jesus Christ disagreed with. That raises the question whether he is in the right job.

And try though I might, I really can't see that it raises any questions about the Internet.

Reply from Philip:

But what is Caesar's?

Pontius Pilate "washed his hands" and handed Jesus over to a local religious court because he could not see what offence he had committed against Roman Law. There is no record as to whether Jesus had a "choice".

Do read the Archbishop's full text.

The relevance is that the Internet is well and truly multi-jurisdictional and Rowan Wiliams gives some very good (if also very challenging) intellectual frameworks for addressing the issues that arise.

1. I think it is generally accepted that Pilate was wrong to wash his hands of the matter. He shouldn't have done. He should have upheld the law. We certainly don't want Jack Straw washing his hands of justice when things get a bit controversial. Do you want to walk to work past a lot of people nailed up on crosses?

2. You cannot help but know more than me about the governance of the Internet. All I can say in my ignorance is that the Internet, or more specifically the web, is the nearest thing to a miracle I expect to see in my lifetime.

3. "What is Caesar's"? We've got at least 800 years of answers to that question, going back to Magna Carta.

4. The Internet can be a vehicle for nasty things, as well as nice ones, as you say (I paraphrase). Well, yes, we know that. It's like railway tracks. They can deliver food. Or they can transport Lenin across Europe with safe passage to start the Russian Revolution "in a sealed truck like a plague bacillus" (WLS Churchill). So what? That's just the way it is with open access and free speech and a free press, you get the rough with the smooth, c.f. the current argument in Canada over Section 13 of their Constitution. You just hope that there are enough intelligent people with a sense of humour and a sense of what is right and the energy for the eternal vigilance needed to prevail over the loonies.

5. The dispassionate search for an "archbishop for the Internet age" would surely start with Tim Berners-Lee. And then be extended to the scores of academics going back to the 50s at least who foresaw the value of hypercard. And maybe to the scores of jurists who set up its brilliant governance, you tell me. And the network mathematicians who designed resilient circuit-switching. And the committee that put IP together. I put it to you, Sir, that it would be a very long time before this search lighted on Rowan Williams. A very long time, indeed.

Comment from Philip Virgo:

Tim Berners-Lee has indeed thought through the consequences of his actions and implications as to where they lead very much more than most scientists and mathematicians. But too many still think in terms of the cultural values of the crew of the Starship Enterprise and most debate over the so-called "governance" of the Internet" is confiined to the technology - look up "Internet Governance" on Wikipaedia.

Before you go further down this track I suggest you read the little Oxforif Internet Insitute "primer" on Internet Governance by Malcolm Peltu and Bill Dutton

Then "Who Controls the Internet" by Goldsmith and Wu.

Then read some of Jonathan Zittrain's work and compare and contrast this with "Cybernauts Awake".

You will then begin to understand why I regard Rowan Williams as an Archbishop for trhe Internet Age - an age when we face a choice between understanding, appreciating and living in harmony with those who have very different cultural values and mindsets to our own - or retreating into cyberghettoes, emerging only to condemn those who not share our rationalised and reinforced prejudices.

5. ... The search would even have to examine Al Gore's claim to have invented the superhighway before it got anywhere near Rowan Williams.

6. I would like you to go into Costa Coffee (CC) and perform the following experiment. The early stages of the experiment are fairly predictable ...

PV: Medium mocha, please, no cream.

CC: Large?

PV: No thank you, medium.

CC: Cream?

PV: No thank you.

CC: That'll be £21.11 then.

At this stage, I would like you to say ...

PV: There can be no blank cheques for unexamined scruples ...

... and see what happens. £1 says they don't give you a free Flake.

Comment from Philip Virgo: no further comment other than to say that we are still trying to find a video or audio recording because he is a good speaker and it is easier to follow than on the written page

Nonetheless, when we do, I would recommend following the text while watching - the thinking is very "dense" in place. This is an area of very messy and sloppy thinking and such academic rigour is truly refreshing - if exhausting to follow.

The Archbishop's lecture, and transcript of Radio 4 interview, can both be accessed via: What did the Archbishop actually say? on the Archbishop's website. The BBC interview with the Archbishop can also be listened to online as part of the BBC's coverage of the story.

Our gentle host, Philip, has charmed and embarrassed me into reading what the Archbishop actually said.

His paper is a revelation.

It comprises 22 dense paragraphs.

Before considering them, can we agree on a few generalisations? In the UK, you can do what you like unless it is actually prohibited by law. There are private and personal areas where the law wisely leaves you alone. If the law was not there, you could not flourish in those private and personal areas. It is only because the law is there that there can be this fertile space in which individuals develop.

There are exceptions but these generalisations are broadly true, they must have occurred to all thoughtful people and it would be surprising if any thoughtful people disagreed with them. Certainly, the Archbishop agrees with them. He says at para.16 that "the important springs of moral vision in a society will be in those areas which [the law of the land] regards as 'private' … ", and at para.17:

The rule of law is thus … the establishing of a space accessible to everyone in which it is possible to affirm and defend a commitment to human dignity as such, independent of membership in any specific human community or tradition … a non-negotiable assumption that each agent … could be expected to have a voice … The rule of law is – and this may sound rather counterintuitive – a way of honouring what in the human constitution is not captured by any one form of corporate belonging or any particular history …

He returns to this idea at the conclusion of his paper, para.22:

If the paradoxical idea which I have sketched is true – that universal law and universal right are a way of recognising what is least fathomable and controllable in the human subject …

Pace the Archbishop, there is nothing counter-intuitive or paradoxical about the need for the rule of law if people are to be able to have personal lives and it is not an original idea. It must have occurred to all thoughtful people but, that aside, he clearly agrees with the rest of us.

What should happen, the Archbishop asks, if there is a conflict between the law of the land and, for example, sharia law?

Before answering, he makes the point that there is not one fixed body of sharia law worldwide. You get national differences and, just like UK law, sharia is alive and evolves, see in particular para.3.

He considers three examples of potential conflicts in the UK and his judgement is consistent – in each case, the law of the land must prevail.

Firstly, forced marriages, para.10:

The 'forced marriage' question … is at the moment undoubtedly a very serious and scandalous one; but precisely because it has to do with custom and culture rather than directly binding enactments by religious authority, I shall refer to another issue …

The Archbishop clearly disapproves of forced marriages and sees no need to accommodate them, there is nothing in sharia to sanction them, he says, they are scandalous customs with no religious defence.

Any appeal based on the Qur'an to ask the UK authorities to allow forced marriages would fail because there is nothing in the Qur'an to sanction them. It would be what he calls at para.9 a "vexatious" appeal based on "uninformed prejudice". To turn down the appeal would therefore not be an insult to Islam.

The second potential conflict he considers concerns the reduced inheritance rights of widows, para.10:

A legal (in fact Qur'anic) provision which in its time served very clearly to secure a widow's position at a time when this was practically unknown in the culture becomes, if taken absolutely literally, a generator of relative insecurity in a new context …

The law of the land now in the UK gives widows more rights than the Qur'an and, according to the Archbishop, however much the law wishes to accommodate the Qur'an:

… it can hardly admit or 'license' protocols that effectively take away the rights it acknowledges as generally valid.

The law of the land wins again. He emphasises the point at para.11. You can have plural jurisdiction to some extent but not to the point where people are deprived of their rights under the law of the land:

If any kind of plural jurisdiction is recognised, it would presumably have to be under the rubric that no 'supplementary' jurisdiction could have the power to deny access to the rights granted to other citizens or to punish its members for claiming those rights.

And so we move on to the third potential conflict with sharia law, apostasy. Traditionally, apostasy is seen in Islam as an act of "violent hostility to the community" (para.12), punishable by "draconian penalties". Can we accommodate that? No, it is "obviously impossible":

In a society where freedom of religion is secured by law, it is obviously impossible for any group to claim that conversion to another faith is simply disallowed or to claim the right to inflict punishment on a convert.

The Archbishop notes that there are Islamic countries where widows have modern UK-style rights and where apostates do not suffer "draconian penalties" or any other euphemism. We are not generally dealing with "a pre-modern system in which human rights have no role" (para.2). But there are still some "primitivists", as he calls them, and their demands for inappropriate punishments cannot be accommodated.

He gives one other example where an accommodation is impossible – the case of Roman Catholic adoption agencies who would rather not deal with homosexual parents (para.2).

But often it is possible, there are examples of the law accommodating conscientious objections. No doctor can be forced against his will to perform an abortion (para.19), for example. And sharia has found ways to accommodate Muslims who want to buy equity in banks and borrow money to buy real estate (para.20). There is nothing new about these accommodations, they go on all the time and always have done.

So why is there a fuss? It's easy to see how the Archbishop may have upset primitivists, but how has he managed to upset Christians and atheists as well? They think that the rule of law must prevail and he has said precisely that. Where did it all go wrong?

I think the answer lies here. Either the Archbishop's paper is in the great tradition of the Church of England, where a dull old man tells the congregation at enormous length a lot of things they already knew. Or it is the electric insight of a revolutionary genius. Personally, I incline to the former. But the outraged journalists, commentators and prelates obviously disagree with me.

Why? Presumably because, having argued uncontroversially that imposing the law of the land is actually liberating, at the end of his paper the Archbishop reverts to describing it as a monopoly, a business that has throttled all competition, a monopoly that should now be relaxed (para.19) so that people can choose their jurisdiction and so that jurisdictions have to compete for adherents (para.20, 21).

He quotes with approval the work of one Ayelet Shacar, an academic with a cute business school turn of phrase, who talks about legal jurisdictions as nothing more than "franchises" and who is looking for a market solution to the problem of "your culture or your rights" (para.13). Markets are all about perfect knowledge, discounted cashflows, choices based on utility, … The law doesn't work like that, neither does religion and you wouldn't expect a thoughtful person to fall for Ms Shachar's meretricious locutions.

Certainly at para. 15 the Archbishop doesn't fall for them. Look at the Terror in the 1790s following the French Revolution, he says, look at 1970s China – that's what you get if you try to rule exclusively by reason. He returns to the point at the end of his paper in para.22 when he attacks positivism. The gentle and fair body of law we have evolved in the UK owes everything, he suggests at para.18, to religious teaching in the Abrahamic tradition.

But for two paragraphs, 20 and 21, he does fall for this market nonsense and the management consultantspeak that goes with it, particularly "transformative accommodation". Quoting Ms Shachar, he says:

… it might be possible to think in terms of what she calls 'transformative accommodation': a scheme in which individuals retain the liberty to choose the jurisdiction under which they will seek to resolve certain carefully specified matters, so that 'power-holders are forced to compete for the loyalty of their shared constituents' (para.20)

It is uncomfortably true that this introduces into our thinking about law what some would see as a 'market' element, a competition for loyalty as Shachar admits. But if what we want socially is a pattern of relations in which a plurality of divers and overlapping affiliations work for a common good, and in which groups of serious and profound conviction are not systematically faced with the stark alternatives of cultural loyalty or state loyalty, it seems unavoidable. (para.21)

There was once a Which? guide to religions in which the Church of England was written up as good value for money for the modest consumer. But that was a joke. Coming from a man who is supposed to deal in theology and to champion his church, it is understandable how some people's sense of humour might fail.

Philip, I still don't think that Rowan Williams is the Archbishop for the Internet Age.

Reply: The concept of nation state legal monopolies was a temporary phenomenon. Until after the Civil War England was hotch potch of legal jurisdictions, with a wide variety of local "freedoms" and courts. Since the mid-1970s there has been a proliforation of overlapping regulatory and tribunal jurisdictions and UK courts can be over-ridden by Brussels or the US (beginning with the Visiting Forces Legislation during World War 2).

It has long been possible to do business in London in whatever languages and currency and under whatever school of law the contracting parties agree. With the growth of Internet traffic we are becoming increasingly used to transactions under other laws (e.g. the US Millennium Copyright Act). They may not be enforceable in the UK but you can now be extradited to the US - hence the fuss over the NatWest Three.

More-over a growing number of businesses (and their key staff) can move at short order between jurisidictions.

The Abrahamic legal traditions go back through Babylon to Ancient Sumeria where everything belonged to god and the laws of property were divine and applied to the rulers as much as to the subject. It was ancient Egypt where everything belonged to the living god, the Pharoah, the state. The tension between Church and State goes back well before Christ and an acquaintance lectures on the use of the commercial codes of ancient Sumeria as a the most coherent way ensuring compliance with conflicitng national and international legislation: Sarbanes Oxley, Basel II etc..

Those who attack that Archbishop on the basis of defending the legal monoploy of the nation state forget that we lost that when we allowed US Forces in the UK to have their own jurisdiction in World War 2 - let alone joined the Euroipean Union. But we should also remember that the Church of England never actually surrended Canon Law - or admitted that "Royal" Law could over-rule it.

I will not go on - but I owuld argue that the multi-cultural, multi-legal perspective of the Archbishop, based on millenia old concepts, is more suited to the global information society than the attempts to pretend to a legal monopoly that may, in strict sense, never have existed at all - or if it did, was a temprary flower.