e-dictatorships versus e-anarchy - national and global?

I have agreed to chair the session on “Ethical aspects related to the use of government on-line services” at the European Commission workshop on “Ethics and e-Inclusion” in early May. In parallel I am mapping “issues and players” for the new UK Internet Governance Forum. As with climate change it looks as though we are walking backwards into a most uncertain future.

Next week I will be attending some of the celebration events when Vint Cerf, one of the fathers of the Internet and now Chief Internet Evangelist for Google becomes a freeman of the City of London. The last time I heard him speak it was on “the race against catastrophe” that had been, and still was, the development of the Internet. Society is now even more critically dependent on 24 by 7, on-line communications systems, most of which now depend on Internet connectivity. Tim Berners Lee has contrasted the theretical resilience of the logical structures with the fragility of the physical infrastructures (the networks of masts, wires and airwaves) over which we access them. I look forward to some profound insights on the choices we now face.

I have also been invited to the launch events for Jonathan Zittrain‘s new book: “The Future of the Internet – and how to stop it” and am equally looking forward to discussing the issues from a different perspective: the legal and political pressures that get in the way of the attempts of the “engineers” – hardware, software and communications – to produce solutions that will work – reasonably reliably.

It will be interesting to see how far Jonathan strays into Ross Anderson territory, “security economics“, the interplay of the commercial and other forces that dictate the budgets available to the players – from corporate lobbyists to product and service developers – let alone the objectives they are set.

There is, however, an interesting lack of holistic debate – bringing together the technical, legal, econimc and political dimensions that need to be addressed in a world that is now cirtically dependent on “the Internet”.

The programme for the Commission Workshop on Ethics and e-Inclusion for which I will chairing one of the most “interesting” sessions, goes to the heart of many commercial and regulatory issues but I will be surprised to see many corporate lobbyists or policy advisors present.

I have therefore agreed with the Commission Officials organising the event that I can solicit inputs from those unable to attend and am awaiting a note from them on the questions they think need to be asked.

Meanwhile I am asking all the networks to which I belong “what ethical questions need to be asked as we move into a world of surveillance, sousveillance and social networking with expectations of on-line, inter-active democracy and social inclusion balanced by fears regarding the exclusion of the cyber-illiterate (including those who cannot physically access or use a screen or keyboard via the trusted inter-mediary of their choice) and the emergence of self-reinforcing cyberghettoes policed by the resident neterati?”.

Please post the questions that you think need to be asked as a comment to this blog. I will then do an entry collating this with thsoe I receive from the Commisison.

I should add that at a forward planning meeting for the EURIM work stream on Personal Identity and Information Sharing, (which we will probably rename in view of its increasing focus on information and identity assurance and governance) we discussed the need for the relevant professional bodies (who are they – because they well beyond those for ICT?) to take a lead in producing and publicising “practice notes” (do’s and don’ts which if ignored without good reason provide the basis for a professional misconduct hearing).

The need is to set practical ground rules for some very foggy and fudgy debates as the traditional divisions of humankind (naive v.paranoid, novophiliacs v. luddites, libertarians v. collectivists, bureaucrats v. pragmatists, centralist v. federal, catholic v. protestant, belligerant v. pacifist etc. etc.) bedevil rational debate and threaten to paralyse the future.

Yet again we need to be able to reconcile “interesting high theory” with “real time practical action”.

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Not actually my question - comes from James B. Rule Privacy in Perl - and probably something already being discussed, but:

Individual privacy solutions seem like a smoke-screen for chipping privacy away to nothing. If we're going to maintain online privacy at all, won't we need some sort of collective solution?

State-mandated privacy laws seem like a good way of keeping the cyber-illterate safer than they otherwise would be.

Good summary at:


My initial inclination on this is to point away from the negative. There are predictable and well discussed ways in which electronic means will reinforce existing inequalities. This is not to say that those points are not worthy - in fact they may well be most important. I would suggest, however, that the adoption of a positive tone to the debate is equally important. Yes, there will always be those who suffer discrimination and lack of inclusion. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to prevent this. But, at a relatively early stage in the development of electronic communication we should take full advantage of our awareness of the nature of existing inequalities to find innovative, specifically E ways of overcoming, at least some kinds of inequality.

E participation has different dimensions to face to face participation:

1. Its remoteness means that users, in some cases, will be less likely to be discriminated against on the basis of a characteristic that can be determined in face to face interactions.

2. One of the most consistent findings of research into political participation is that Politics suffers from an ‘old mens club’ image. Many feel that that politics is not for people like them. Whilst the internet is certainly not a panacea for problems of low political participation and voter turnout – it’s usage should be exploited to discover how interaction with a computer ; online images etc instead of with ‘old men’, or traditional formal interfaces, might encourage participation. Indeed, work on this is ongoing.

3. Research also consistently shows that whilst many people don’t participate, they are interested in the issues. This strongly suggests that the interface between people and issues is the problem. How can the internet as an interface between citizens and issues strengthen the relationship between them? How can the electronic interface help overcome what is seen to be one of the biggest issue by citizens: politics being non-responsive?