Three Eras of Digital Governance

Paper by Jonathan L. Zittrain: “To understand where digital governance is going, we must take stock of where it’s been, because the timbre of mainstream thinking around digital governance today is dramatically different than it was when study of “Internet governance” coalesced in the late 1990s.

Perhaps the most obvious change has been from emphasizing networked technologies’ positive effects and promise – couched around concepts like connectivity, innovation, and, by this author, “generativity” – to pointing out their harms and threats. It’s not that threats weren’t previously recognized, but rather that they were more often seen in external clamps on technological development and upon the corresponding new freedoms for users, whether government intervention to block VOIP services like Skype to protect incumbent telco revenues, or in the shaping of technology to effect undue surveillance, whether for government or corporate purposes.

The shift in emphasis from positive to negative corresponds to a change in the overarching frameworks for talking about regulating information technology. We have moved from a discourse around rights – particularly those of end-users, and the ways in which abstention by intermediaries is important to facilitate citizen flourishing – to one of public health, which naturally asks for a weighing of the systemic benefits or harms of a technology, and to think about what systemic interventions might curtail its apparent excesses.

Each framework captures important values around the use of technology that can both empower and limit individual freedom of action, including to engage in harmful conduct. Our goal today should be to identify where competing values frameworks themselves preclude understanding of others’ positions about regulation, and to see if we can map a path forward that, if not reconciling the frameworks, allows for satisfying, if ever-evolving, resolutions to immediate questions of public and private governance…(More)”.