Lessig interview on the major challenges facing the internet

Larry Lessig was interviewed in Foreign Policy about the row over control of the Internet. One exchange I thought was interesting:

'FP: Are the biggest challenges and questions that face the Internet right now essentially social and political, or are they more technological?

LL: I don’t think there’s an “or.” The fundamental point I’ve conveyed in my writing and teaching—apparently no policymaker has yet learned this—is that policy is a function of technology. You can’t do policymaking in cyberspace without thinking about the interaction between technology and policy. It’s as ridiculous to be a policymaker and believe that you can make policy without thinking about the technology as it is to be chairman of the Federal Trade Commission and think that you can talk about competition policy without thinking about the economic consequences of the rules you impose. A smart policymaker asks, “What technology will my policy produce?” and “Will the net result of that technology in my policy be the policy result I want?”'

I'm a big fan of Larry's work connecting law and code, but I think he's falling back on a talking point here from his book tour and missing the central question being asked. Thinking about the effect technology will have on the implementation of a particular policy (and vice versa) is different than wrestling with the social/political challenges being raised by the expansion of the internet.

In the context of the questions being asked it's clear that the interviewer was driving at the cultural differences around the world, particularly between Southeast Asia (China in particular) the Middle East (Iran in particular) and the "West" writ large. The internet is growing to be so important to the social and economic life of the world, per Annan's comment I quoted yesterday, that it will soon be subject to the same international political pressures that buffet global business and diplomacy. For example, if the internet had been invented in China it's probably safe to say it would operate quite differently than the way it currently operates.

With the world opinion of the US at it's nadir from the last few decades, it's understandable that other nations would resist the continued control of this vital new resource by a single country. It's going to be interesting to see how the WSIS deals with this issue. So to answer the question from my perspective, the greater challenges and questions are definitely social and political as opposed to technological. As a result we need to get to work laying the foundation for an open, transparent, and collaborative global conversation to address them. Otherwise, the internet will become just another bargaining chip in international negotiations, to be used by the powerful as they see fit to benefit their self-interest.

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