Private Sheriffs in Cyberspace: Jonathan Zittrain OII Event: London, 19th May 2009

zittrain
On Tuesday evening I attended an Oxford Internet Institute sponsored lecture by Jonathan Zittrain, Professor of Harvard Law School, Co-Founder and Faculty Director, Berkman Centre for Internet & Society (at the salubrious legal offices of Wragge and Co). Zittrain talked about regulation on-line by major Internet players such as Facebook and Apple and asserted that many of the regulating methods employed by them were outside of the rule of law. His contention was that many ‘Web 2’ companies have immense and increasing social and economic power within the fabric of our lives and are regulating their sites in a rather ad hoc and random way in terms of banning application developers, individuals, and groups that do not adhere to their governance structures. He used a number of examples to support his thesis, plus introduced a simple graph to illustrate emergent styles of governance:

Top-down

Hierarchy >poligarchy

Bottom-up

As an example of a ‘bottom-up’ governance structure Zittrain cited Wikipedia which includes a deliberative system to manage thorny editorial decisions. As a top-down system of governance he cited Facebook; although Facebook is beginning to include the community in decisions relating to its structure and functionality. He used the term ‘social governance’ to describe this bottom-up governance approach and suggested ways in which this approach may be designed into a system (through flagging certain tasks that help tap into the ‘reservoir of good will’ of the community). A well-designed system should have mechanisms to ask users for their input.

Although I tend to agree with many of the arguments of Zittrain, I feel there is a tendency to overstate the importance of sites such as Facebook and Youtube to the broader public. Sure they are popular, but this isn’t the British Library, the University of California, or the Library of Congress we are talking about! They are just large and fashionable web sites; a small part of the fabric of our complex lives. And commercial companies will perhaps always act in their own interests; either commercially or ideologically.

I suppose what is needed is some sort of bill of rights/responsibilities that is general to the operation of the Web within a certain geographical region balanced with the specific values of the site in question. There is nothing wrong with sites asserting behaviour norms upon users; but then again governance structures should be transparent and open; not outside of acceptable norms of the broader public sphere. A site should never assert policies that are deemed racist nor discriminatory (perhaps this is Zittrain’s anxiety when he claimed than many sites operate outside of ‘the rule of law’). The relationship between the community and the platform should always be fair and equitable; especially in large user-based sites such as Facebook. In my mind, governance structures, whether online or off, should always be open and transparent.

One of the respondents to the talk, Ian Brown, a Fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute (and author of the recent report Database state) asserted that the relationship between Citizen and State and Cyberspace needed to be reconsidered. He also claimed (from his experience) that that the issues raised by Zittrain are not well-known in the UK;  especially in senior government levels. As an historian (and not a legal expert), my  scepticism relates to the actual significance of the entire debate.  I suppose that the significance of the debates depends on the importance the public places on systems such as Facebook and their governance structures. I may agree with Eric Hobsbawn that Terrorism is more a perceived threat in the UK that an actual threat (to the state), but then again the public is led to believe otherwise so it now painfully significant.  So if the debates about governance are perceived to be important by the public; then they will become important. So we may have a ‘Facebook Parliament’ in the making deliberating about the rise of rudeness on Facebook . They should start with the Tube system!

Leave a Reply