Public Service: beyond the Open Internet

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Anyone who has followed my writing, talks and broadcasting over the last two decades will know that I have a very consistent view of the ways in which we need to manage the Internet (I’ll grant myself the privilege of using an upper-case I to talk about the network I’ve been living and working with since the mid-80’s – it remains a singular thing to me) in order to make it work for people and society.

From my pamphlet on the mutualism of the Internet for the Cooperative Party in 2000 (https://medium.com/@billt/e-mutualism-or-the-tragedy-of-the-dot-commons-489bfbd965ea), through my inflammatory essay for The Register in August 2002 (https://www.theregister.co.uk/2002/08/09/damn_the_constitution_europe_must/) , and my Cybersalon Christmas Lecture at the ICA later that year (https://medium.com/@billt/in-december-2002-i-gave-the-cybersalon-new-media-knowledge-christmas-lecture-at-the-institute-of-97f7510e4eb8), and on through many columns, talks and extemporised rants over the years, I’ve argued that we need to create rules that allow us to deliver a network that genuinely supports free expression, and that this requires engineering effort, because a dumb, unregulable, end-to-end service that simply delivers bits does not properly serve the public interest.

I’ve always argued that we don’t get free speech by having no rules online, but by building a network that can have rules applied and then winning the political arguments for laws and regulations which guarantee that free speech, within the bounds of a specific group, country or culture, and according to their agreed standards.

And as I said in “Damn the Constitution: Europe must take back the Web” (2002)

Unless we can take back the Net from the libertarians, constitutional lawyers and rapacious corporations currently recreating the worst excesses of US political and commercial culture online, we will end up with an Internet which serves the imperial ambitions of only one country instead of the legitimate aspirations of the whole world.

While this would greatly please the US, it would not be in the interests of the majority of Internet users, who want a network that allows them to express their own values, respects their own laws and supports their own cultures and interests.

Events seem to have borne out my prediction, and I haven’t changed my view, as you can tell from this slightly random talk I did at a Cybersalon event in 2014 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=frg9V9yoo9U where I pointed out that back in the 1980’s ‘the systems we were building on lacked all the features you might need if you were going to build a humane society on top of them.’

And I’m not the only person who thinks that some intervention is needed. Diane Coyle argued for a public service network in the Financial Times in July (https://www.ft.com/content/d56744a0-835c-11e8-9199-c2a4754b5a0e) where she says “creating a genuine alternative to the tech titans will have to involve a different model. A direct approach would be to set up a public service alternative… An alternative provider with a different business model would compete on the quality of its service rather than — as now — the number of clicks.”

John Naughton used his Observer column on August 19 https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/aug/19/twitter-supposed-to-spread-democracy-not-trumps-ravings to ask how “digital technologies [went] from being instruments for spreading democracy to tools for undermining it”, describing himself as
“a distressed, recovering techno-utopian… [who] believed that the internet would be the most empowering and liberating technology since the invention of printing by moveable type.”

The situation has become critical because the damage being done to things many of us value by the current instantiation of the Internet is so serious that we need to act soon or we may never be able to fix it. The latest argument over how and in what way Twitter should enforce its Terms of Service only highlights my view that you cannot rely on private companies to deliver good societies, that there have to be frameworks of law and regulation within which those companies operate that set the boundaries of acceptable discourse.

I know that some people feel differently, because they are rightly concerned that once you allow control of speech – censorship – then you create the mechanisms that can be used to clamp down on dissent, or unpopular views, or just ‘stuff the state doesn’t like’ – like references to Winnie the Pooh.

They are right, and there will always be a need for tools that can resist censorship, go around architectures of control, and allow dissent to be aired.

But that need comes after the political arguments have been lost and should not be the default, because the damage done to the public sphere in a reasonable democratic society by abuses of freedom of speech are real and present, and the fear that the tools that can be used to regulate such speech might be abused does not seem to me to outweigh that damage. Build Tor, and have it ready if you need it – but put the necessary controls in place for today’s network, too.

Perhaps the most salient point to make is that I don’t believe that the open internet and an internet that delivers the sorts of public service objectives that motivate organisations like the BBC are the same thing. That doesn’t mean they can’t coexist, and I am in favour of both of them – in the appropriate place.

An open, unregulated internet provides unfettered, anonymous, unaccountable speech to everyone with the technical skill and the desire to seek the means, and along with the public goods that this offers it also supports the worst excesses of online culture.

In contrast, a public service internet, like public service broadcasting, attempts to assert controls over the way this communications technology is used in order to serve specific public objectives. It is designed in such a way as to make public service outcomes feasible. It will not thrive on the open internet because the checks and balances needed to deliver public goods cannot be properly established there.

If we are to have an internet that serves the public good it must, therefore, be delivered by asserting control over the regulatory environment and the underlying technology: there must be rules, and they must be enforceable.

Furthermore, the public service internet will not emerge without some direct intervention, so we need encourage projects to define and deliver the standards and the rules needed to support it.

The original wide area networks, from ARPANET to the Internet, were designed to be freely usable, and their power has been enormous. The free net, and the generative potential it makes possible when combined with general purpose computing, has been of great significance. It must be preserved if we are to imagine and design the next generation of tools, applications, and services.

But the physical network and the connectivity between nodes that it makes possible can be the substrate for a range of logical networks with different characteristics, and just as IPv4 and IPv6 coexist today, so we can imagine PSIP (the Public Service Internet Protocol) operating to define a logically separate, rules-based, internet.

It would be a network where a different set of assumptions operate, where the balance between freedom of expression, privacy, respect for family life, and the other principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is more even, rather than being tilted entirely to the freedom to say whatever you want, whatever the harm, along with the tools that let you so without personal consequences.

For me the central premise of this public service internet should be to provide an online space within which you can make reliable promises to users. I think the three big ones are that everyone should:

know that they are connected to the node/computer that they think they are

know that their data will not be intercepted/surveilled/rewritten without their knowledge

know that when a person makes a claim of identity/status it can be relied upon.

If these are given, then much else follows. If these are given then a public service Internet can deliver on its duty of care to the people who use online services, and keep the implicit promise organisations make when they ask us to trust them online.

But I don’t think these sort of things can be resolved at the application level, by building a better browser or federated social network. They need us to address some of the issues within the TCP/IP protocol suite, the set of standards that move bits reliably around the network, and although a lot of work is already being done here it’s not moving fast enough or getting enough traction.

Because I believe this, I’ve been working at the BBC for the last nine years, trying to figure out what an online public sphere might look like and what role the BBC could play in building and nurturing it. I’m not speaking on behalf of the BBC here, but expressing my personal views, views that influence the things I argue for.

They are the context within which I carry out my role within BBC Research & Development, but I’m a participant in a debate that is currently being played out among a large number of people, and only one voice in that debate.

One of the things we’re doing there is exploring what we mean when we say ‘public service internet’ (https://www.bbc.co.uk/rd/projects/public-service-internet), and how that might translate into things the BBC could do – an exploration that everyone is invited to take part in.

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