Center for Internet and Society
The Debate Over Internet Governance:
A Snapshot in the Year 2000




    Karl Auerbach
    Fred Baker

    John Perry Barlow
    Dave Crocker
    Jay Fenello
    Carl Kaplan
    Michael Krieger
    Jamie Love
    Eric Menge
    Charles Nesson

    Mike Roberts
    Joe Sims


   The Future
   The Internet
   Participants' Internet
   Participants' Biographies


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John Perry Barlow 

I.                  BIOGRAPHY

II.               PERSONAL BACKGROUND IN INTERNET                         ISSUES


a.     Defining Governance

b.     Is ICANN Governance? ( Part I | Part II )

c.     Alternate Models of Governance -                                Technarchy

d.     A Marketplace of Ideas

e.     Sublime Governance

f.     Laws in Real Space vs. Laws in Cyberspace

g.     General Views on the U.S. Government

h.     The Marketplace of Ideas and the Media

i.     Does the Internet Need Government or            Governance?

j.     Dispute Resolution

IV.             ICANN

a.     Limits on ICANN’s Authority
( Part I | Part II )

b.     Global Meetings

c.     The Stakeholders

d.       Fear of Capture    

V.                CONSENSUS

a.     Is Consensus the Right Standard?

b.     Defining Consensus

c.      Why Consensus?

VI.             THE INTERNET

a.     What is the Internet’s Greatest Promise?


a.     Worst Case Scenario 

February 25, 2000

GOVERNANCE: Defining Governance

Q: Define "governance."

A: Governance I think is the organic orderings of society, as opposed to government which is the structural ordering of society. I think that you hear the word governance being used loosely, especially by people in government. I know that when I started using it I meant it to be quite obviously distinct from government. I meant it to be something that emerged out of the need for an order, and something that was done by common consensus. And the system that I see working in cyberspace at the moment is precisely that: it's a natural, organic response to problems, mostly of a technical nature. But those technical problems have a political and social component. I would think that in most cases, architecture is politics, which is a concept that we had at EFF back in the early '90's that has recently been made quite popular by Larry Lessig. It is certainly the case in cyberspace where the technical architecture defines the discourse in every instance.

Q: Is the organic structure of governance effectively dealing with problems that have emerged in cyberspace?

A: It looks to me like it is. When I think of problems that I consider problems, there are two that have not been solved, or at least addressed in a way that I would consider to be appropriately comprehensive. One of them is spam. And I am waiting for what I fully expect to arrive: the technical solution to spam, rather than the legal solution.  And the other is the transition between the traditional copyright model and the one that I think is going to be the dominant way of organizing economic return for intellectual work in cyberspace.  We don't know what that is yet, and the first order of business is to prevent the existing models from asserting themselves in cyberspace. I mean we have to stop copyright at the border, and in the meantime start developing other solutions. But I think those are developing; they just haven't been codified. I don't think anybody has come up with a model that is so dominating that it's worth saying "this is the way things are going to be." And that's of critical importance because I think that the property model is not going to work here. You can't own free speech, and if cyberspace is to be the ecology of ideas that I fully expect it to be, we're going to have to address this one. But we are. Today's conference is a case in point. The more people who come and get all of the various problems out on the table and address ways to solve them, the closer we get organically derived solutions.

Q: The instinct seems to be to deal with issues that arise through government and structure.

A: Well, I understand that instinct. I mean, I've had it on occasion in the past myself. I used to be a semi-pro environmentalist and I was always in favor of passing laws, but it was precisely that experience that gradually made me realize that I could get a lot further by changing social ethics than I could by passing laws.  And laws didn't precede ethics, ethics preceded laws (in an ideal circumstance).

Furthermore, I look at the situation we have here and it seems fairly obvious that nobody has the right to be in charge.  I don't see anybody who has the right to rule in this instance. I don't see any sovereign power that has legitimate claim to authority over cyberspace. Nor do I think it makes sense to endow some multi-national or global entity with the right to rule because what I see happening with the global entities that we have like the United Nations or the semi-global entities like the European Commission is that they become hopeless quagmires of bureaucracy which are apparently accountable to no one, rule very arbitrarily and inefficiently, and become problems almost the instant they're born. So I think that we have to turn to other models for solutions to these problems. We can't just go out and pass laws because the laws would be passed in an area that doesn't have authority to enforce them.

GOVERNANCE: Alternate Models of Governance – Technarchy

Q: Are there alternate models that you think would work better?

A: Well, … my theory of how this works is something I call technarcy, which is government by ideas. Where the powerful entity is not an institution or a charismatic individual or an elected individual or an electorate. It's the idea itself. And you see this working in the way in which the internet has been governed up to this point. If there's a technological problem, let's say the address space in the TCP/IP header has to be changed, well then you have a world-wide call for solutions from the Internet Engineering Task Force. And there are Requests for Comment and lots of different folks who are involved in internet engineering, networking, that kind of thing propose different solutions to the problem. So far it has worked out that with a minimal amount of political juggling, the ideas that dominate are the ones that seem generally the most elegant ideas to practically all of the parties concerned. I mean, those ideas become the ruling ideas by virtue of their clarity, their precision, their ability to solve the problem with a minimum amount of fuss and bother.

Q: Like a consensus?

A: It is not like a consensus, it is a consensus, and the consensus is then institutionalized by the willingness, which is purely voluntary, of different sites to adopt that solution as part of their technology.  New solutions win by virtue of adoption, and they don't get adopted if they're bad solutions.

ICANN: Limits on ICANN’s Authority (Part I)

Q: This echoes ICANN's claim that their authority stems from peoples' willingness to adopt their proposals.

A: That's correct. They are, in the same way the IETF is, a mediated body. They're a forum for the free competition and evolution of ideas. And the ideas essentially, as I say, are the enfranchised and governing entity.

GOVERNANCE: Is ICANN Governance? (Part I)

Q: Is ICANN governance or government?

A: Ideally it's governance. And I think if you ask most of the people who are involved with ICANN, that's what they want to do.  They're not interested in being government at all, and they would resist strongly the idea that they are government.

Q: Do you believe that they are governance?

A: Yes, so far. But there are a lot of governments and traditional industrial institutions that want them to be government because government can be influenced and can exercise authority in the traditional way and there are a lot of those who are in traditional authority who want to extend that traditional authority over cyberspace.  And are looking for every entry point that they can possibly get.

ICANN: Limits on ICANN’s Authority (Part II)

Q: Do you foresee that ICANN will turn into a government?

A: No, I think that if they transition into government, there are technical solutions to taking them out of government. The top level domain is something that is observed as a matter of common consent.  There are plenty of ways to manage the top level domain on a much more distributive and anarchic basis so that you've got lots and lots of different things that are in the top level domain besides com and net and org and gov. Other people could be putting up new top level jurisdictions or domains all the time. And that will happen if ICANN is not commonly perceived to be serving the general purposes of the on-line world.

Q: So what's the ultimate check on ICANN?

A: The technological ability to do it without them. And that exists.

Q: But ICANN controls the DNS.

A: Yes, [but] look at RealNames, that's [a] solution. That's a technical solution that creates a sort of meta-DNS. And that's just one example. I've seen a variety of different acts, if you will, that would eliminate the necessity of the ultimate buck stopping at ICANN servers. But right now, the convenient thing to do is to have that go on being the case until such time as it's widely believed that they're not doing a good job. And at that point I think you'll see other solutions arrive.

ICANN: Global Meetings

Q: Is ICANN's process of having meetings all over the world helpful?

A: I think it's helpful. It skews the process to some extent, and I don't know a way around this, by meeting all over the world, they tend to favor the people who have the money to fly all over the world. And they may get the ordinary users in Cairo next week, but I'm not sure how large and well-informed and vital the Egyptian (and maybe it is, maybe this is just a prejudice) on-line community is. I tend to think that … however large or well-informed they are, they're probably not going to be heard quite as clearly as the folks from Microsoft and Sun and AOL and the internet industry. And that is a concern in general. I think that there is a clear distinction to be drawn between the internet industry and the internet society. The internet industry has one set of goals and principles and the common netizens have, I think, another one. And part of the job that ICANN has is to try to make certain that the ordinary netizens are served, in addition to the so-called stakeholders.

ICANN: The Stakeholders

Q: The stakeholders are the internet industry?

A: Yes. Which is how governments tend to define the interested parties. I mean they look at other institutions, they don't look at individuals.

Q: So ICANN is structurally skewed to weigh stakeholder interests more heavily?

A: I would have a hard time coming up with a solution to that problem. I mean, I don't think that that's a conspiracy on anybody’s part and I don't think we're trying to put English on the ball or tilt the deck or anything. It's just a natural outgrowth of the fact that they meet all over the place, and meeting all over the place seems like the sensible thing to do because they're an international body.

Q: What group of stakeholders is least actively involved and/or most underrepresented?

A: Almost by definition, it's the ones that you can't think of.  And there are plenty of them, I assume. We're talking about the whole human race here. And the human race doesn't define itself conveniently into a few internet corporations and a few public interest groups like EFF. There are a lot of other people on-line and they haven't perhaps even identified themselves as having a stake or may not even be aware that there are processes behind all these venues that they frequent.

GOVERNANCE: Is ICANN Governance?  (Part II)

Q: The current debate over internet governance often focuses on ICANN. Is that the right focus?

A: I don't know that that's the wrong focus. That's certainly … if nothing else, this is a good area to focus on because it's critical.  It matters what happens here. This is all coming to a head at a time when a lot of traditional institutions that never took the internet seriously before are suddenly finding that they have to.  And they're expecting to have the same kind of authority that they've had traditionally, and are hurt, baffled, and confused when they don't. And [they] are becoming aggressive. And how we deal with those acts of aggression will determine whether or not cyberspace goes on being a free place or gradually becomes a hostage of the powers that work.

CONSENSUS: Is Consensus the Right Standard?

Q: What do you think of ICANN's use of consensus as a standard for decision-making?

A: That's what's worked so far. That's how the IETF has worked, that's how the World Wide Web Consortium works, that's how most of the bodies that have been involved in creation and governance of the internet have worked to this point.

CONSENSUS: Defining Consensus

Q: Define consensus.

A: I think consensus is where people decide that it's time to quit arguing and start deploying. ... Consensus is not a state of unanimous agreement. Consensus is often characterized by unanimous exhaustion. … It's how things are. I think that there comes a point in most debates where, if you've actually got business to do and you're not just a debating society, where everybody decides it's time to get on with it and ship so to speak. So at that point, stop the discussion and ship what you've got. And that is consensus. I think that the important thing here is to differentiate consensus from other approaches to dispute resolution. One of which is obviously autocracy, which is certainly the most efficient. Voltaire said that the best government was benign tyranny modified by occasional assassination. And I'm not sure he was wrong about that. But then you have democracy, which I tend to think of as another form of tyranny: the tyranny of the majority. And then you have the lumpiest, slowest and most irritating of all, which is consensus. …

Q: It's also probably the least efficient. …

A: You know, I'm not a great fan of efficiency in government.

CONSENSUS: Why Consensus?

Q: So why consensus?

A: Because consensus is, I think, is most likely to be the one that is fair, and certainly is most likely to be the one that ideas are best equipped to make their way through, where the strong idea is most likely to dominate rather than the strong human being or the strong structural practice, [i.e. the ] political model of the traditional … democratic school.

GOVERNANCE: A Marketplace of Ideas

Q: So you're proposing a marketplace of ideas?

A: I'm proposing that we recognize that it's there, that it's working.  And before we try to impose something else, we might step back for a bit and pay some attention to how the thing that we've got is working. And my own belief is that if ain't broke, we shouldn't fix it. And so far it ain't broke, at least not to my thinking. I mean I spend most of my time with EFF trying to keep people from fixing things that don't need to be fixed. People in traditional governments that want to assert their power by coming in and fixing a problem that may or may not exist, usually with tools they don't have.

Q: For example?

A: The Communications Decency Act is a beautiful case in point.  As far as I can tell, what that would have made illegal was saying things on-line that that I have heard many, many times in the Senate dining room. And they had absolutely no right to tell people in the on-line world that they couldn't say the words that members of Congress commonly say themselves. And they, furthermore, had no means of enforcing it. And finally, they didn't have jurisdiction.  And I didn't see that there was a problem in the first place. I mean, yeah there's pornography on-line; but there's pornography on every newsstand in New York. But can regulate sales in real world It strikes me that people underage start becoming interested in pornography at a certain fairly predictable point in their hormonal development, and at that point they get pornography one way or the other. There wasn't an internet when I was 13, but it struck me that there was plenty [of pornography] around at that point, and probably was for a 13 year old boy in Pompeii. Again, I think the ultimate way to deal with those kinds of social issues is with a social response, and not with a structural response. If you don't want your kids looking at pornography, raise them to think that it's distasteful. Don't tell the government to make certain that they can't see any.

GOVERNANCE: “Sublime Governance

Q: The marketplace of ideas is also subject to capture, isn't it?

A: I think it is. I mean I'm worried that it is. And I think that's a lot of the issue that we're confronting with ICANN at the moment.  Will ICANN go on being an independent, fair arbiter, or will it be captured by a few powerful interests? And I don't know that we have the answer to that yet. Fortunately, the personalities who are involved are, I would say, relatively immune to the blandishments of large corporate power. I can't guarantee that it's always going to be like that.  See, the internet adopted this fairly sublime style of governance at a point when nobody took it seriously. The question is can it maintain that abstraction now that it's clearly where all the money is?

Q:  How can we maintain the internet so that it can?

A:  Well, I think partly by trusting people that we think of as being wise and good. You know the Vint Cerfs of the world. Anybody who knows Vint Cerf knows that Vint Cerf is a wise and good man who is not particularly vulnerable to bribery, flattery, or anything except what he feels is going to be the best thing for the internet. And that is true I would say by and large of the folks who are the pioneers of this environment.  The question is whether or not they have been able to transmit that culture to the next generations. I think there is evidence that they have in the form of somebody like Tim Berners-Lee who is much younger than Vint Cerf but nevertheless, I would say, is very similar in terms of his wisdom and decency.

Q: Would Jon Postel be a good example?

A: Jon Postel was obviously the perfect model. I mean there was a man of such consummate wisdom and decency that … he held an enormous amount of power and nobody ever thought to gainsay that power because everybody respected him. Everybody knew that he acted purely out of the interests of the internet.

ICANN: Fear of Capture

Q: What are our alternatives if ICANN is captured by corporate interests?

A: Then we have to come up with alternate solutions to the problems that are not so vulnerable to corporate manipulation. … One potential concern that I have is that there be enough NT servers in the world so that Microsoft could say, alright we're going to start writing TCP/IP in a way that is optimized for NT, if you really want to get a bit quickly from A to B, you have to use our flavor of TCP/IP, and you have to use NT servers. And once they've done that, then they are in a position to start regulating the flow of bits and cyberspace is no longer a cloud, it becomes a series of channels that are monitored and controlled by Microsoft and its allies. Now, at that point, it would be incumbent upon us to come up with a better technical solution that is faster and most comprehensive and uses an open model, which shouldn't be that hard to do. I'm convinced that an open system is always going to be more powerful than a closed one.

Q: Like Linux?

A: ... Linux and the formation of Linux and the maintenance of Linux and the growth of Linux is a pretty good case of technarchy at work. I mean yes, there is Linus Torvalds, but there is also Linus Torvalds and a million completely anonymous coders in whom ideas are developing and among whom the stronger ideas are coming to the forefront and being adopted.

Q: But it develops more slowly.

A: When you consider what was involved and the resources that were behind it, it didn't take that long really. It was pretty rapid, and that was just when it was basically one guy trying to write an operating system for the world. That was the long, hard part when it was just Linus Torvalds. Now that it's become a community of people working on it, I think it's another matter.

Q: But there's still going to a problem of potential capture.

A: There's always going to be a negotiation. You have Linux on one hand and Red Hat on the other. And they're actually necessary to one another. Now, if Red Hat begins to become monopolistic in its marketing and its direction over the writing of Linux, then somebody else has to come along and do a better job of making sure that the system is open.

GOVERNANCE: Laws in Real Space vs. Laws in Cyberspace

Q: Is there a difference between laws in real space and laws in cyberspace?

A: There's a big difference. Laws in cyberspace are hard to enforce, very hard to enforce because you don't have a body that you can enforce them on necessarily. … Laws traditionally have been passed by governments that had clear jurisdictions and had things that they could do to the people and institutions in those jurisdictions had penalties that they could assess, sanctions that they could impose, those kind of things. It's very difficult to do that if you don't know where the event that you're trying to regulate is taking place. You don't know who's doing it. You don't know whether it lies in your jurisdiction or not, you don't know whether it affects your jurisdiction or not. So laws in that sense of the term, I don't think, are particularly useful in cyberspace. Now ethical understandings, unwritten laws, codes (as in code of the west or as in computer code), those are another matter.

Q: Codes ...

A: Understandings, widely held views.

Q: But isn't there a big difference between “understandings” and computer codes?

A: Yes and no. An API is kind of like an understanding, it may be an understanding, the construction which is dominated by the entity that produces the code, but it is still: this is a programming interface, we understand that, we all agree that that's the programming interface for this particular piece of software. So it's not completely dissimilar. … If you take the open software model, there are many inventors. Or if you take the internet model, the way in which the internet was developed, the idea that the was a father of the internet is kind ridiculous. You have Vint Cerf, who was an important figure, or Bob Kahn or Dave Farber, or anyone of about 35 people I could name. And hundreds of thousands of others who I couldn't name. But the fact is that the internet was developed by a lot of different people. TCP/IP is the creation of many, many different minds.

THE INTERNET: What is the Internet’s Greatest Promise?

Q: What is the internet's greatest promise?

A: My God. I think that this is the most extraordinary thing that's happened in the history of humanity. What it's greatest promise is is beyond my comprehension …. We're talking about creating an organism that is based on all human mind, the collective organism of consciousness. And that's not just a promise, I think that's very quickly becoming a reality, and that's a very big deal. Very.

Q: Was the development of this kind of technology foreseeable?

A: Yes, [Pierre] Teilhard de Chardin foresaw it. Indeed, if you look at the writings in the early days of telegraphy I think there were a number of people who saw it then. Nathaniel Hawthorne foresaw it, writing about the world becoming a giant brain way back in the 1850's. And when I first read Teilhard de Chardin, I was convinced that he was talking about something that would come. I didn't know how it would come, and it wasn't until I first saw the Arpanet that I realized that this is how it was coming.


Q: How did you get involved with the internet?

A: I was interested in community and I wanted to find out what the Dead Heads were doing and how they were creating community.  … I just got on-line and started looking around and gradually thought that something was going on here that was socially interesting and politically interesting and started writing about it. People started taking things that I wrote and passing them around. Gradually over a very short time I became as much of an expert as anybody. I didn't have any credentials. I didn't have anything but a voice and a way of looking at things that other people found useful. … That's what it's about. A broke down cattle rancher from Wyoming with no background whatsoever can become an internet guru in a fairly short period of time on the basis of nothing but the strength of his ideas.

GOVERNANCE: General Views on the U.S. Government

Q: How do your views apply more broadly to the U.S. government?

A: Well I don't know what the solution is at this point. Certainly democracy is not the solution. I mean we have democracy and it's working grotesquely well. You've got a government that reacts to every hysterical whim of the populace and the populace is being whipped into one hallucinatory frenzy after another by media. And it's completely out of touch with anything that I would call reality.

GOVERNANCE: The Marketplace of Ideas and the Media

Q: Isn't the media a reflection of the marketplace of ideas?

A: That's not the marketplace of ideas. The media are not an open market. The media are a very closed market. The mass media are very few outlets for information that have a clear and definable goal in cultivating human attention since they're selling the attention of the audience to the advertisers . So trying to get the truth out there is not part of their brief. Cultivating human attention is what they do, and that's best done by fear, sex, and violence.

Q: How do we prevent that from happening to the internet?

A: I think we prevent that from happening to the internet by the very nature of the beast, which is that it's a completely open channel to everybody. It doesn't require a lot of money to be a broadcaster.  It doesn't require anything. … The idea that you have to have some sort of economic weight in order to have a voice is a holdover from the broadcast period. It's an industrial idea. I'm not saying my megaphone is exactly the same size as Time Warners, but it may be pretty close.

THE FUTURE: Worst Case Scenario

Q: What's the worst thing that could happen to the internet?

A: The worst thing is that it [the internet] could somehow become the complete slave of a few corporate interests and that everything that travels through it is owned by somebody. That it's all owned content and nobody's capable of copying anything or passing it on their friends and all discourse is somehow commercialized and mediated, which is precisely what the traditional media are trying to do, and traditional governments and traditional everything. But I'm pretty confident that we'll beat them.

Q: Why?

A: Because we're smarter then them.

Q: “We” being?

A: The people who care about this stuff. The party of the future rather than the party of the past.

GOVERNANCE: Does the Internet Need Government or Governance?

Q: Does the internet need government?

A: No.

Q: Does the internet need governance?

A: Yes.

Q: What sort of governance?

A: Governance of the sort that it's getting. Governance by the broad consensus of social interaction. The overall open interplay of self-interest. And I think that this is an environment where that may turn out to be a good bit less easily hijacked to the needs and devices of a few than self-interest has been in the physical world.

GOVERNANCE: Dispute Resolution

Q: What about dispute resolution?

A: People often find ways to resolve dispute pretty well if they don't have somebody to turn to. I found that with my own kids, realizing that all children are lawyers and that they were constantly trying to litigate, I realized that I could do what the Supreme Court does regularly and simply refuse to hear the case. And it's amazing how good they get at solving their dispute when they find out that I'm not going to hear the case. … One of them had to be wilier than the other, and eventually they had to deal with it. … The good thing about cyberspace is that physical force is never an element. That's the problem with conflict resolution in the physical world: sooner or later somebody pulls a gun. Pulling a gun is not going to get you anywhere in cyberspace. … So far I see something like the EFF doing quite well against the combined governments of the physical world and the copyright assembly where they've got us outnumbered in terms of resources many hundreds of times, many orders of magnitude, but we have the virtue of being right and so far that still counts for something.



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