A blog on why norms matter online

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I'm a Post-Doc Fellow at the Cluster of Excellence "Normative Orders" of the University of Frankfurt and lecturer at the Institute of International Law of the University of Graz, Austria. I've studied international law in Graz, Geneva and at Harvard Law School. I enjoy thinking and writing about Internet Governance and discussing and shaping the future of the Internet

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Why the Internet is not a dark and scary place


(cc) Couple with a young female 
Booh. 

No, wait, actually there is no reason to be afraid. 

Though many policy-makers, traditional media sources, and large parts of the population believe, the Internet is not a dark and scary place. 

Why it is not, and why it is rather a source of innovation, was the key theme of a recent talk in Berlin by Ben Scott, Senior Advisor at the Open Technology Institute of the New America Foundation and former Internet policy advisor to Hillary Clinton's State Department.  

The talk was held in the framework of the Internet&Society Co:llaboratory's 6th initiative on Innovation in the digital ecosystem. (The 5th initiative, of which I was the thematic lead, was dedicated to human rights on the Internet. Have a look here for the online version of the final report). 

The initiative looks at key questions of harnessing the potential of the Internet for social innovation and economic growth, centrally: 

"How can we shape the ecosystem of our digital societies? 
Which institutions and approaches do we need, to foster societally valuable developments? 
How do we overcome borders on the internet and secure an open, functioning and inclusive internet ecosystem, which is more than just a business web, but a space for social and cultural evolution?"

Returning to Ben Scott and this ghostbusting: He has three key messages for us. 
  • Innovation is the creative response to destructive change.
  • To enable innovation, you have to know about your weak points. 
  • The Internet's culture is based on adaption and combination



His whole talk is available on  Co:lab's YouTube channel and is absolutely worth watching. 

I find it especially enlightening when he talks about the importance of coping with vulnerability, when innovating. There is no such thing as failsafe innovation. You try, and fail, and try, and fail (perhaps again and again) - and then you succeed. This culture of accepting failure is slow to emerge in some parts of Europe. 


But learning from mistakes is something that, as Ben Scott recounts, American diplomatic personnel also had to get used to. Before Wikileaks, his talks to US ambassadors on how decentralized networks of political actors would become active internationally, were met with limited interest. Julian Assange changed this. ("You were right", he says ambassadors later told him, "now make it stop".) 

But you can't make it stop. 


And this is why the Internet continues to be a dark and scary place for some, namely for traditionally-minded policy-makers wedded to national answers to what are actually international problems. 

It is high time to look seriously at he political and legal dimension of decentralized, transnational networks and thei impact on agenda-setting and policy-making. A first step could be to accept humanization as a paradigm of international law and international relations: a concept that reorients the international order towards the individuals and provides for a more nuanced position for states. 

A final lesson on innovation from a Silicon Valley bigwig? 

Ben Scott asked the successful technology enterpreneur how to create innovative technology policy.

His answer: "Go to breakfast!" (and talk to people from your network and ask them who they think you should, again, talk to, which lawyer to contact, which accountant to hire, which programmer to employ ...) 

It's dinner time in Austria, but the message still rings true. 

It is people who matter - when innovating, but also when making policies. And increasingly it is, in fact, the people, loosely organized in decentralized, transnational groups who  actually make the policy. 

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