Internet governance has become paralysed by the spreading global view that the best government is scant government, to the detriment of the common good, according cyberspace law authority Lawrence Lessig.
Using the current brouhaha over governance of Internet domain names as an example, Lessig challenged the idea that government should maintain a hands-off approach when it comes to cyberspace policy in his keynote address at the One Planet, One Net symposium sponsored by Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR).
Democracy means that the will of the people drives the creation of laws and policies, but citizens in democratic nations and lawmakers have abandoned that basic principle, said Lessig, a renowned constitutional law scholar who teaches at Harvard University. Lessig made news recently when he was named an advisor to the court in the federal Microsoft antitrust case -- a duty he has since been relieved of by an appeals court.
"Do we know what we will have in exchange," Lessig wondered of the push toward government uninvolvement. "When government disappears, it's not as if paradise will take its place. When governments are gone, other interests will take their place."
And that's precisely what has happened with Internet domain names. After announcing its intention to get out of the business of administering and maintaining the domain-name registration process via exclusive contracts with two organisations, the US government prepared a white paper proposing that a private non-profit organisation take over.
The highly controversial proposal has drawn ire from around the globe and from various organisations concerned with Internet governance issues, and also has given rise to self interests attempting to wrest control. The Internet Assigned Names Authority (IANA), the US government-funded organisation that has administered Internet domains, addresses and protocols, has written a proposal for domain name governance that Lessig and other critics contend was arrived at without consensus and is not representative of a broad spectrum.
Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society, whose faculty Lessig is on, was asked to hold a meeting regarding the government white paper, but then was shut out of the process after IANA decided to become actively involved, Lessig said.
He opened his speech and sprinkled it throughout with a quote from an unnamed IANA attorney who drafted the proposal: "The single unifying force is that we don't want government running things." That comment sums up the "religion of anti-government" that seems to have become a prevailing view.
As the US government started "shopping" for a method to ditch its oversight of domain-name governance, it latched on to the idea of creating a private non-profit group to represent common values, which Lessig noted with irony is exactly the role government itself is supposed to play, though in a public forum.
The US government has abrogated its duties, he said, taking jabs at the administration and the US Congress, whose House of Representatives is currently so consumed with impeachment proceedings and the "public flogging" of President Bill Clinton because he lied about having sex with a White House intern that governance of the country has come to a near standstill.
And in the case of the Internet domain name scheme, that has meant that the IANA proposal was written by a Washington, D.C., lawyer, instead of by a bunch of "genius geeks" who write and understand software code and cyberspace, Lessig said, noting that he realises it's his job to train future attorneys.
Returning to a common theme in his speeches and writing, Lessig said, "The 'Net is governed already. It's governed in places by people who write the protocols of the space" and it is governed by code. Those code and protocol authors impose their values on the space, and what is important to them are largely the values of freedom and openness.
The process of creating cyberspace governance is tantamount to "building the most important jurisdiction since the Louisiana purchase," said Lessig, who also peppered his talk with dry humor.
"My claim is that we should focus on the values of liberty," he said, urging a return to philosophies espoused by John Stuart Mill that freedoms such as liberty, speech, privacy and access be protected by governments.
"If there is not government to insist on those values, then who?" Lessig questioned.
He recalled an anecdote about Daniel Webster, a US statesman who in 1851 addressed Congress, saying he appeared not as a representative of his state, but as an American. Such a sentiment was profound for that era because the sense of unity and being part of a larger nation was not established; travel between states was rare.
Those who use cyberspace are at a similarly profound point of recognition.
"We are on the cusp of this time where I can say, 'I speak as a citizen of the world without others saying, 'God, what a nut,' " Lessig said.
And as we arrive at that stage, the realization must sink in that cyberspace is not part of any particular jurisdiction, that it is of the world and therefore should be governed by the consensual view of its populace. Lessig fears that doing otherwise will lead to the creation of "more private, non-profit corporations dedicated to the public interest" which in reality serve narrow self interests.
"The single unifying force should be that we govern ourselves," he said.
When applause died down at the end of Lessig's remarks, Curtiss Priest chimed in with a compliment from his seat: "Brilliant!"
"What was brilliant about what he said is that he took a very narrow issue and put it in a very broad perspective," Priest said of Lessig's focus on the domain name plan in an interview after the speech.
Priest, director of the Center for Information Technology & Society, has long been an advocate of the need to "help the federal government help ourselves" through individuals participating in the processes that lead to consensus.
Saying that Lessig is "absolutely right," Priest noted that in the US, the federal government's shift in attitude about its role has been ongoing since the end of the administration of President Jimmy Carter and has now become a chief point of pride in the Clinton administration. Priest echoed sentiments being expressed in conversations outside of the lecture hall where Lessig gave his speech.
"We are indeed," Priest said, "living in extreme times."
Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, based in Palo Alto, California, has offices worldwide and can be reached at +1-650-322-8778 or at http://www.cpsr.org/. Lawrence Lessig, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, can be reached at http://www.cyber.harvard.edu/lessig.html/, where texts of his speeches and academic papers also can be found.