Tuesday, June 3, 2008

The "Clean Slate" Project: Who Should Referee The Internet?

By Gregory F. Daniels* and Eric V. Turner**

The Internet has been around for approximately four decades, but a team of Stanford University experts says it’s broken. It’s now in the midst of taking a “pull-out all the stops” approach to developing a new prototype.

The project is called the “Clean Slate Design for the Internet.” It’s supposed to answer two questions: how to design a new global communications infrastructure from the ground up; and what will the Internet look like in 15 years.

The Internet has proven to be one of the most successful examples to date of a joint enterprise among academia, government and industry, with each making substantial contributions in research, development and investment. However, there’s a growing concern that today’s information technology infrastructure will not be able to support the increasing demand that new and innovative products and services will require.

Consumers and developers are driving the supply and demand for wireless innovations that are enormously content driven. These future wireless systems will provide the public with virtually everything from on-demand information regarding smog indices in particular areas of cities, to on-demand wireless mobile access to personal music libraries. Thus a growing number of experts believe that it’s time to rethink the Internet’s underlying architecture and implement a new model that will not only meet the needs of a growing demand for capacity, but will also provide greater security against the vulnerabilities that exist in the current Internet infrastructure.

Because a new Internet is fast becoming a practical necessity, its prospective architecture and protocols have far-reaching and profound implications for virtually every government, every business, indeed every organization and person in the world. It is precisely because of these substantial considerations that it matters so greatly who sits at the table that designs and builds the latest version of the “worldwide web.”

Currently, the “clean slate” team at Stanford is “partnering” in this project with a few major commercial enterprises in order to benefit from their resources and expertise. However, revamping the Internet from scratch should not be left to just a handful of academicians and big corporations. The Internet is a global fixture in modern-day civilization. It has economic, political, social, cultural, scientific and even moral influence throughout the world. Yet for the most part, the Stamford project lacks international collaborators representing most of these interests.

For example, governments throughout the world are the aggregators of enormous quantities of information that are useful and valuable to people everywhere. Providing citizens with relatively inexpensive and convenient access to that information will make it easier for them to obtain services they may need. It therefore would be of great utility if all governments were to apply and follow generally accepted rules and protocols for the disclosure and confidentiality of their public records. Thus such rules and protocols should be a part of any “clean slate” prototype.

By bringing together a broad array of people from a variety of places and weaving their practical knowledge and technical expertise with the best hardware and software available, the “clean slate” project could assist immeasurably in bringing government closer to its citizenry.
Nonetheless, because the Stamford project team lacks international experts in a number of relevant disciplines, including government information and transparency, appropriate architecture, rules, protocols, and even etiquette, may not be built into its design for the new Internet. Perhaps more important, the Stamford team may be unable to meaningfully resolve who will referee the new Internet’s use or police its misuse.

In addition, if the new Internet is to accurately reflect the values of the world community, its design must take into account and support international norms of fundamental human rights. Consequently, any “clean slate” project should include not only government representatives, but representatives from civil society as well.

Indeed there are a number of critical stakeholders beyond the academic and commercial, whose interests need to be considered in order to build a genuinely new system. Moreover, under-inclusion in the process runs the substantial risk that whoever funds the project will own the outcome, thus enabling monopolistic control. Whether such control is exercised by government or by commercial entities, the potential for abuse – be it of human rights or greater economic predation – is infinitely enhanced.

For example, a significant threat of any clean slate improvement is that the Internet will be used to collect vast amounts of information about citizens. In this regard, law enforcement officials are bound to make their needs for surveillance known.

Our information-driven society will put an ever-increasing demand on access to data. People who have access will not only be able to better control their own personal destinies, they will better control what happens in their individual communities and the greater world in which they live, work and interact with others.

The developers of a new Internet that will deliver such data must address the myriad - and oftentimes conflicting - public interest and policy issues that we now know such a network implicates. If the new Internet is to stand as an effective and lasting communications system, its development and implementation must include a broad-based group representing the key constituencies so critical to reaching a solution that meets the economic, political, social, cultural, scientific and moral needs of the people it will serve.

* Gregory F. Daniels is Commission Counsel & Legislative and Administrative Manager, Connecticut Freedom of Information.
** Eric V. Turner is Managing Director and Associate General Counsel, Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission.

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