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Internet Governance

A good discussion about blogging and the lack of wireless support over lunch; including some very good ideas for what to do better next time around. Lilia has now set up a site on TopicExchange to combine most of us AoIR bloggers, and I'll post more details about this as soon as I can actually post something… We've now moved on to the next session, and I'm afraid I've missed most of Victor Pickard's paper on Internet governance. His paper last year was very good and I'll have to look it up when it goes online on the AoIR site. I'm also running low on batteries (where have you heard this one before?), so we'll see how we go with this session. Afterwards, there will be the AoIR annual general meeting.

Junhao Hong is next, discussing Chinese Internet policies. China now has 80 million Internet users (but this is only 6.2% of the total population!), and this is likely to grow to make China the largest Internet user in the world within years - there is 'vigorous development'. Chinese Internet policy is very unique, however, but the Chinese government is very keen to turn the country into an Internet society. (Junhao conducted a survey in China, but also points out that such surveys are of limited value due to the limitations on open surveys there.)

There are three stages of Internet development in China: pre-97, 97-99, and 2000-present. First, there were no specific policies for the Internet before 1997. (The first very ambiguous policy on Internet regulation was established in February 1996.) After 1997, a few policies were issues, but these were often either too general and essentially meaningless, or badly lagging behind technological developments. Since 2000, a number of specific regulations, policies, and law-like policies were implemented: "The Temporary Act on Websites involving News Operation" (2000) and "The temporary Act on Websites Involving Publishing" (2002). Characteristic of such policies is a split nature - strong in-principle encouragement of Internet development and use, but also strong in-practice concerns about the 'negative' impact of the Net. As a result, policies tended to be constrictive and restrictive, with constraints placed focussing on political and ideological rather than sexual or violence concerns. (This is the kind of content filtered out by what's sometimes called the great firewall of China.)

As far as Junhao's surveys went: 50% thought the policies were too restricted, 46% thought regulation was necessary, but by societal organisations rather than party or government; 33% suggested a change to more open access; and only 10% thought the Net should be 'administrated' by the government and that the existing Chinese Internet police are the only necessary means to carry out such administrative measures.

At any rate, China needs to grow its Internet population in order to avoid falling behind - especially also in the countryside and in smaller cities, in older and middle-aged people, and in lower socioeconomic groups and women. Right now, the Internet has started to function as a public forum - not yet a public sphere, but incorporating some of its features. Its participants already help scrutinise and criticise official media representations of news events and the society, and people use it to say what they want to say, not what the government wants to hear (often by using Internet cafes to circumvent surveillance. There are some cases which Junhao lists here; the only one widely known outside China may be the handling of the SARS outbreak, and others include Sun Zhigang's death at the hands of Chinese police, a fatal car accident involving a BMW fault, and the resentencing of mafia leader Liu Yong.

Internet events have become societal events this way, and there is pressure for policy change on the party from such events. There are criticisms of the regime, and government and party officials now do show their face online. Still the public are divided on the impact of the Net, and there remain many who view the Net as a tool for surveillance as much as for democratisation. And at any rate, controlling the Internet may have become increasingly difficult, not impossible. This impact may not be revolutionary and overt, but cultivate and covert, serving as a catalyst for the next historical transformation of the Chinese state.

Rajiv Shah is next, theorising the effects of computer code. Code serves as a regulator (this is nothing new to readers of Lessig and Kapor), and there is a need for a theoretical model of code. This would help us analyse how code regulates already, and to use this proactively in future regulation. Three sides are involved here: institutions, who play a central role in developing code; individuals, who customise for themselves how code is used and shape the development of technologies, and of course the code itself. The theoretical background of this is two-fold: on the one hand, a question of structuration; a balance between agency and structure which provides a multi-layered view and a dynamic conceptualisation. On the other, actor-network theory which can analyse the interaction between actors and code, but doesn't have a useful macro-level focus.

Institutions, then, play a key role in the development of technology and its structures. Their own structures and processes translate into the social and technological attributes of code - for example, in the development of cookie technology: these emerged from the NCSA at the University of Illinois, who focussed not on encroaching on users' privacy, but on peer-recognition; later, in the commercial environment of Netscape, cookies were re-conceptualised as a tool to support commerce, and the rapid development of technology under a commercial system paid inadequate attention to privacy issues; finally, in the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) the privacy flaws and problems were very immediately identified, due to that organisation's focus.

On to regulation and reconfiguration, then. Through regulation, code can affect individuals; at the same time, individuals have the power to reconfigure code (to varying extents) through customisation and setting of preferences. There are certain governance characteristics of code, then, and the characteristics of code can be modified to allow for different forms of regulation (e.g. through defaults: preselected options which are preinscribed into the code - cookies, for example, and set to 'allow' by default).

Code can also be shaped by people and society; indirectly through institutions which are set up and funded, or more directly by individuals who modify code. Further, the market can shape code development, and so can public interest groups (as they did in the case of cookies, for example). Government also has this ability: through regulatory approaches, fiscal intervention, or through utilising IP rights. We are only at the start here; but these sketches might help us develop a recursive regulatory model for technology.

Finally up is Matthew Allen, the AoIR Vice President. He speaks of the story of the regulation of the Internet in Australia (and hopefully he'll speak fast so I can capture most of this). The express justification for Internet regulation in Australia remains the national interest. National competition in an international economic arena is the often stated driver of regulation, and technology is subordinated to the national interest in this way. There is a familiar rhetoric of national development through Internet rollout, and most of the little government spending there has been has been to build capacity in remote areas. At the same time, the Net opens up Australia to be vulnerable to all of the usual threats - pornography, 'unsuitable' content, and international crime - which are claimed not to exist domestically.

For the government to do something, at least, demonstrates its activity on this field, and this in itself is a necessary move in an environment where people are expecting their government to do something about (perceived) threats. It also reinforces national stereotypes if the government is able to lay the blame for all problems at other nations' feet. The Internet is articulated here directly with some imagined global, and sidesteps the supposed role of the nation. The problem of being in two places at one as one used the Web throws into question of national governance, however. And that's also where my power runs out.