January 1, 2005

Thoughts For the New Year.

My iPod selected an interesting way to begin the year: Virgil Thompson's suite (Stokowski conducting) from the 1936 film The Plow That Broke the Plains.

I've owned many copies of this music through the years - going back to an album of 78 rpm disks.  And from these copies I've learned the difference between conductors (such as Stokowski) who can bring out the emotion of a piece and perform a work of art and those (Mariner) who boil it to death and produce meaningless, boring mush.

This film and this music are the result of government.  The world is a better place because the government of the United States commissioned these works.

In the film we see the combined activities of private farmers plowing, spoiling, and eventually destroying, the great plains grasslands of the United States.  It is no great stretch to imagine ICANN - an epitome of private action for the self-centered benefit of a few industrial actors - driving those tractors across the plains of the internet; plains that are still fertile but whose soil for innovation is drying up and blowing away with each seasonal plowing.

It is simply wrong to think, as many today do, that government is a bad thing.

Yes, there are bad governments - the US Department of Commerce has demonstrated how easily a governmental body can replace responsible decision-making  with dogma.  The internet is far less stable and more vulnerable today than it was before the US Department of Commerce came aboard in 1997 and created ICANN as its private, secular arm.

Despite the few rotten apples, government is where the aspirations of a nation come together, in the words of the US Constitution, to "establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquillity, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity".

2005 is the year in which the combined governments of the world intend to act on questions of internet governance.  This is a matter that transcends the internet; what is done with regard to the internet will establish the model for what will occur as the clarity of national boundaries and national powers continues to erode.

There are many things that are polluting the debate.  ICANN has adopted a stance in which its own self-preservation supersedes truth and the actual stability of the internet.  The US Department of Commerce continues to promote an obsolete Reaganesque view of Corporate America First.  Voices from smaller countries are afraid to speak for fear of being derided as "clueless" because they are not fluent in the vernacular of internet technology and are unwilling to require that internet technologists state their assumptions and values, disclose their logic, and separate those aspects of their conclusions that are disguised social policy making from those that are actually technical choices.

Eric Hobsbawm, in his book The Age of Extremes : A History of the World, 1914-1991, argues that the system of capitalistic private enterprise nearly collapsed during the 1930's just as the USSR's rigid systems of centralized economic planning eventually did later in the century.  He goes further to argue that what we have today is a blended system - unconstrained private enterprise has been moderated by government - through laws and central planning and administrative bodies (such as the US Federal Reserve and US Environmental Protection Agency.)

That kind of blended system is not "a public-private partnership" for the simple reason that it is in the nature of private enterprise to promote its own economic self interest as far as is allowed by public law and public regulation.  Public and private interests are in opposition.  The public sector is not the partner of private enterprise but, rather, is its keeper.

The worldwide debate on internet governance should not fall victim to the false idols of "private governance" or "public-private partnership".  Just as the private farmers of the 1930's turned the grasslands of the United States into "the dustbowl" through the cumulative weight of private choices, the internet is in danger of becoming a wasteland of industrial strip malls if its governance is left in the hands of those who respond to private interests rather than those of the community of internet users.

Posted by karl at January 1, 2005 10:19 PM