In the battle between institutional and distributed power, more technology means more damage. And we’ve already seen it: cyber criminals can rob more people, more quickly than real world criminals; digital pirates can make more copies of more movies, more quickly than their analog ancestors. And we’ll see it in the future. 3D printers means control debates are soon going to involve guns and not movies. And Google glass means surveillance debates will soon involve everyone all the time. This is really the same thing as the weapons of mass destruction fear: terrorists with nuclear biological bombs can do a lot more damage than terrorists with conventional explosives. And like that fear, increasing technology brings it to a head.
Very broadly, there is a natural crime rate in society, based on who we are as a species and a culture. There’s also a crime rate that society is willing to tolerate. When criminals are inefficient, we’re willing to live with some percentage of them in our midst. As technology makes each individual criminal more effective, the percentage we can tolerate decreases. As a result, institutional power naturally gets stronger, to protect against the bad part of distributed power. This means even more oppressive security measures even if they’re ineffective, and even if they stifle the good part of distributed power.
OK, so what happens? What happens as technology increases? Is a police state the only way to control distributed power and keep our society safe? Or do fringe elements inevitably destroy society as technology increases their power? Is there actually no room for freedom, liberty and social change in the technological future? Empowering the distributed is one of the most important benefits of the Internet. It’s an amazing force for positive social change in the world. And we need to preserve it.
In this battle between the quick and the strong, what we need is a stalemate. And I have three recommendations on how to get there. In the short term, what we need is transparency and oversight. The more we know what institutional power is doing, the more we can trust it. Well we actually know this is true, we know it’s true about government. But we’ve kind of forgotten it in our fear of terrorism or other modern threats. It’s also true for corporate power. Unfortunately, market dynamics will not force corporations to be transparent. We actually need laws to do that. And transparency also helps us trust distributed power. Most of the time distributed power is good for the world. And transparency is how we differentiate positive social groups from criminal organizations.
Oversight is the second thing. It’s also critical. And again, it’s a long understood mechanism for checking power. And it’s a combination of things. It’s courts that act as third party advocates, it’s legislators that understand technologies, it’s a vibrant press, and it’s watchdog groups that analyze and report on what power is doing. Those two things, transparency and accountability, give us the confidence to trust institutional power and ensure they’ll act in our interest. And without it, I think democracy just fails.
In the longer term, we need to work to reduce power differences. The more we can balance power among various groups, the more stable society will be. And the key to all this is access to data. On the Internet, data is power. To the extent the powerless have access to it they gain in power, to extent the already power have access to it they further consolidate their power. As we look to reducing power imbalances, we have to look at data. This is data privacy for individuals, mandatory disclosure rules for corporations, and open government laws. This is how we survive the future.
Today’s Internet is really a fortuitous accident. It’s a combination of an initial lack of commercial interests, of government benign neglect, of some military requirements for survivability and resilience, and a bunch of computer engineers building open systems that work simply and easily. We’re at the beginning of some critical debate about the future of the Internet, Law enforcement, surveillance, corporate data collection, cyberwar, information consumerism and on and on and on. This is not going to be an easy period as we try to work this out.
Historically, no shift in power has ever been easy. Corporations are turning the Internet into enormous revenue generator and they’re not going to back down. Neither will governments who have harnessed the Internet for a good control. And these are all very complicated political and technological issues. But we all have a duty to tackle this problem. I don’t know what the result is going to be but I hope that when, generations from now, society looks back on us in these early decades of the Internet, they’re not going to be disappointed. And this is only going to happen if each one of us engages, makes this a priority and participates in the debate. We need to decide on the proper balance between institutional and distributed power, and how to build tools that will amplify what is good in each, or suppressing what is bad. Thank you.