Below are some links I see between the technical and social characteristics of the Internet. I’ve also made a draft declaration of online rights, building on the work of others in this space (references and credits at the bottom of the post).
What do you think works, doesn’t work, or is missing?
I’ve had a few people ask why I’ve focused on the technical characteristics of the Internet at all. Basically I think the technical characteristics both provide some insight to the social characteristics, as well as provide some solid grounding to the argument that the social characteristics, no less than the technical characteristics, should not be tampered with lest we damage the opportunities provided to our society by the Internet.
Let’s extrapolate the technical characteristics discussed in the last post and see what each technical characteristic leads to in a social sense:
- Open standards - open technical standards for connection and data exchange is a core aspect of the Internet, ensuring the capacity to communicate across different systems and platforms.
- Common access - once a connection is made online, core aspects of the Internet are common to all (such as root name servers and communications protocols), and thus access provides a common experience, unless specifically tampered with or configured otherwise. This commonality is important as it creates the capacity for people to connect with information and each other across the globe.
- Peer to peer - the Internet isn’t a hierarchy, it is an enormous number of machines that talk to each other as peers, albeit usually configured to use a common addressing scheme. This feature of the Internet means people can connect, publish, share and collaborate with each other, without relying on a third party (apart from infrastructure).
- Routing around damage - the distributed nature of the Internet means there is the capacity to work around any failure in the system. this is extremely important for continuity of the online experience. This feature of the Internet becomes particularly profound when “damage” includes censorship or any other form of tampering, but it also has led to an embedded social expectation that people should be able to access what and who they want online.
- Massively distributed network - the Internet is designed to have no single point of failure, with many redundancies built in. This approach of a massively distributed stable platform for communications has led to the establishment of massively distributed infrastructure, and as a result massively distributed online communities that traverse almost all traditional barriers to communication and has brought the world much closer together.
- Multi-source networks of trust - part of having a massively distributed network is the availability of multiple sources, especially when there are failures. How DNS works is an example of a technical multi-source network of trust. As a society we can actively seek out information and other people online and we have the ability to find multiple sources, or indeed first hand sources of information. As such as we can compare and contrast with “official” reports, and establish our own understanding of a situation. Over time we establish networks of trust for people, sources and platforms, which we use to prioritise and contextualise information.
- Platform independence - Internet communication protocols are necessarily independent of the hardware and software stacks involved in being online, which means communications online are independent of your choice of device, hardware or software.
Below is a further extrapolated list of potentially useful social characteristics or perhaps simply reasonable expectations of our experience online.
A draft declaration of online rights
Below is a set of online rights that we, as online citizens, should be able to expect. Extrapolated from various sources and the technical foundations above.
Please note, it is inevitable some of these will conflict, it is about balancing the best possible set of expectations.
UPDATE: I’ve numbered them so you can more easily refer to them for feedback in the comments Thanks crystalsinger for the suggestion
- The right to anonymity, pseudonymity and the choice to divulge as much or little personal information as we choose.
- The right to an uninterrupted connection online, free from any and all human threats of disconnection.
- The right to freely express, publish, debate and distribute knowledge.
- The fundamental right to observe and the share your observations.
- The right to freedom from persecution, discrimination, intimidation, lock-in and being held to ransom.
- The right to determine the use and access to personal content and information, including the right to export data to another platform or download for perpetuity.
- The right to choose a clean feed, that is, a connection and software that is not filtered or otherwise manipulated to expressly change the online experience of an online citizen.
- The right to free association without persecution.
- The right to hold others to account for their actions or deeds, especially with respect to this charter.
- The right to be free from unwarranted surveillance.
- The right to be free from data retention.
- The right to be free from retroactive data mining and data policing.
- The right to symmetric data rates without discrimination (aka – no difference between upload and download speeds, especially given modern communications infrastructure like fibre where the arbitary limitation is unnecessary).
- The right to reasonable affordable connectivity rates, especially when public funds are used in private infrastructure.
- The right to tell mathematical truths without restrictions – (encryption related).
- The right to use strong cryptography and to have sources of cryptographically strong randomness.
- The right to assist others in resisting violations of any of these principles.
- The right to have surveillance and censorship systems revealed to the public.
- The right to be free from government and corporation actions that compromise or intercept your personal electronic and other computing devices.
- The right to privacy of metadata (such as location, browsing history or email recipients) – metadata is content; metadata in aggregate is sensitive, private and powerful content and should be protected.
- The right to participate in shaping the future of the Internet – democratising the running of core Internet infrastructure.
Some references and credits (chronological order)
- Many thanks to Jacob Appelbaum who contributed heavily to this list.
- Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace (1996) [EFF]
- Universal Declaration of Digital Human Rights (2009) [MNEMOSINE]
- RFC1958 – Architectual Principles of the Internet (1996) [IETF]
- Declaration of Digital Rights (2011) [Pirate Party]
- The United Transnational Republics project and Manifesto (2011)