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Privacy and the Future: Are We Good Trustees of the Internet?

Roy Balleste

"I believe there are more instances of the abridgment of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power, than by violent and sudden usurpations."1 —James Madison, Fourth President of the United States of America

Recently I was reminded of the words, "responsibilities and service to the community." To individuals involved in internet governance, these words should be well known. But have we lived by the code exemplified by these words? Have we lived up to the high standards that they represent? I have always been a student of history because it never fails to show me that humanity, on many occasions, tends to repeat the same mistakes.

Recent discussions have shown me that, although a process of decision may be perceived as moving too slowly, actually, it may be moving too quickly. We must guard against decisions that control the Internet while undermining the best of the technology. Any participant of the internet governance process must recognize that technology should ultimately serve humanity, and not a particular group or institution. Any other objective is doomed to failure. The recent initiatives to change and centralize data sources, at first glance, seem to allude to necessary efficiency at many levels. But should that efficiency alone be the touchtone that rules the Internet? We must tread lightly, and we must be sure.

Dr. Jon Postel alluded to the power behind the management of the Internet as a designated authority working in trust to serve the community.2 In essence, he suggested that the designated authorities be mere stewards on behalf of the global Internet community. Should the world community be concerned that their rights to privacy are being continually eroded under the guise of enhancing security or efficiency? The poor, the uninformed, and the naïve all expect the same outcome: they assume that "somebody" is watching over their online rights. They all go to sleep at night under the rosy assumption that all will be fine. Yet, the words of Lord Dalberg Acton serve as guide posts as we proceed with future debates.

"I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption it is the other way, against the holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority, still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it."3

Dr. Postel's writings noted that those in power over the Internet were meant "to carry out the necessary responsibilities, and have the ability to do an equitable, just, honest, and competent job." What is necessary to do the job and what is just desirable? Or worst, what are just plain contraventions of human rights? The decision-makers may start out with good intentions, but they must be careful not to lose sight of the principles informing the debate. Dr. Postel also noted that concerns about rights and ownership of domains were inappropriate. "It is appropriate to be concerned about responsibilities and service to the community." From these words we learn two additional principles: transparency and accountability. Those four requirements apply always, to all stakeholders, in every corner of the Internet, and in every circumstance. We must be sure that the decisions made under the banner of the "public good" are carried out, indeed, for that purpose. Above all, we must guarantee that any effort taken will not betray the public trust.

1 James Madison, The Debates in the Convention of the Commonwealth of Virginia, on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution, June 6, 1788, available at Constitution Society.
2 Jon Postel, Domain Name System Structure and Delegation, Request for Comments 1591, ISI, March 1994.
3 John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, Historical Essays and Studies 504 (J. N. Figgis and R. V. Laurence, edts., 1907).

By Roy Balleste, Law Library Director & Professor of Law

Related topics: Internet Governance, Law, Policy & Regulation, Privacy


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James Madison Quote Glenn McKnight  –  Oct 03, 2013 10:29 AM PDT

Interesting premise but not historically appropriate.  Remember Madison was the US President that declared war on Britian on June 16, 1812 and almost bankrupted the United States in the doing.  He as othe slave owners were concerned about the Northern States imposing their will on the Slave States and later John Calhoun banged this same drum.  Note it was the New England states that were aganist the War aganist Britain.
A more relevant peice was on NPR radio today on US Laws and the Constitution

Quote Roy Balleste  –  Oct 03, 2013 10:52 AM PDT

Thank you for your comment.  Respectfully, we can agree to disagree.

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