Tech Policy Is Not A Religion

Opinion Piece by Robert Atkinson: “”Digital libertarians” and “digital technocrats” want us to believe their way is the truth and the light. It’s not that black and white. Manichaeism, an ancient religion, took a dualistic view of the world. It described the struggle between a good, spiritual world of light, and an evil, material world of darkness. Listening to tech policy debates, especially in America, one would presume that Manichaeism is alive and well.
On one side (light or dark, depending on your view) are the folks who embrace free markets, bottom-up processes, multi-stakeholderism, open-source systems, and crowdsourced innovations. On the other are those who embrace government intervention, top-down processes, additional regulation, proprietary systems, and expert-based innovations.
For the first group, whom I’ll call the digital libertarians, government is the problem, not the solution. Tech enables freedom, and statist actions can only limit it.
According to this camp, tech is moving so fast that government can’t hope to keep up — the only workable governance system is a nimble one based on multi-stakeholder processes, such as ICANN and W3C. With Web 2.0, everyone can be a contributor, and it is through the proliferation of multiple and disparate voices that we discover the truth. And because of the ability of communities of coders to add their contributions, the only viable tech systems are based on open-source models.
For the second group, the digital technocrats, the problem is the anarchic, lawless, corporate-dominated nature of the digital world. Tech is so disruptive, including to long-established norms and laws, it needs to be limited and shaped, and only the strong hand of the state can do that. Because of the influence of tech on all aspects of society, any legitimate governance process must stem from democratic institutions — not from a select group of insiders — and that can only happen with government oversight such as through the UN’s International Telecommunication Union.
According to this camp, because there are so many uninformed voices on the Internet spreading urban myths like wildfire, we need carefully vetted experts, whether in media or other organizations, to sort through the mass of information and provide expert, unbiased analysis. And because IT systems are so critical to the safety and well-functioning of  society, we need companies to build and profit from them through a closed-source model.
Of course, just as religious Manichaeism leads to distorted practices of faith, tech Manichaeism leads to distorted policy practices and views. Take Internet governance. The process of ensuring Internet governance and evolution is complex and rapidly changing. A strong case can be made for the multi-stakeholder process as the driving force.
But this situation doesn’t mean, as digital libertarians would assert, that governments should stay out of the Internet altogether. Governments are not, as digital libertarian John Perry Barlow arrogantly asserts, “weary giants of flesh and steel.” Governments can and do play legitimate roles in many Internet policy issues, from establishing cybersecurity guidelines to setting online sales tax policy to combatting spam and digital piracy to setting rules governing unfair and deceptive online marketing practices.
This assertion doesn’t mean governments always get things right. They don’t. But as the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation writes in its recent response to Barlow’s manifesto, to deny people the right to regulate Internet activity through their government officials ignores the significant contribution the government can play in promoting the continued development of the Internet and digital economy.
At the same time, the digital technocrats must understand that the digital world is different from the analog one, and that old rules, regulations, and governing structures simply don’t apply. When ITU Secretary General Hamadoun Toure argues that “at the behest of all the world’s nations, the UN must lead this effort” to manage the global Internet, and that “for big commercial interests, it’s about maximizing the bottom line,” he’s ignoring the critical role that tech companies and other non-government stakeholders play in the Internet ecosystem.
Because digital technology is such a vastly complex system, digital libertarians claim that their “light” approach is superior to the “dark,” controlling, technocratic approach. In fact, this very complexity requires that we base Internet policy on pragmatism, not religion.
Conversely, because technology is so important to opportunity and the functioning of societies, digital technocrats assert that only governments can maximize these benefits. In fact, its importance requires us to respect its complexity and the role of private sector innovators in driving digital progress.
In short, the belief that one or the other of these approaches is sufficient in itself to maximize tech innovation is misleading at best and damaging at worst.”

One Reply to “Tech Policy Is Not A Religion”

  1. I think there’s a big, and inapposite, leap from “legitimate governance process must stem from democratic institutions” to thinking the the ITU is the place to find it. In the eyes of those like myself who do support (sensible) regulation by legitimate democratic institutions, bodies like the ITU fail on two grounds: First the policy is developed through a ‘stakeholder’ process that involves pay-to-play; Second, the ITU itself is one-government one-vote, which both fails to control for size and also gives despots equal voice to democrats. (And which, historically, has been no friend to technological diversity.)
    Legitimate governance is hard; if it exists at all it will be found elsewhere. It is dangerous to equate national institutions with each other, and even more so with international ones (and also international ones with each other). Democracy is a variable. Very variable.
    Furthermore, I do not buy into the conflation of support for legitimate democratic governance with the fast move to reliance on ‘experts’. Of course for democracy to function effectively it must have expert advice. But that is a different matter entirely from turning over governance to experts and ever more so if they are unreviewable.
    Even less does being a ‘digital technocrat’ rather than a ‘digital libertarian’ counsel against open source!!! Rather one lets all the flowers bloom and compete in the marketplace.
    The bottom line – support for diversity – isn’t that different from where you end up above, but the way of getting there is very different.
    Generally I have found the posts here to be very valuable; forgive me for picking on a Homeric nod.

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