Governance is the process by which society defines expectations, grants power, or verifies performance, through laws, regulations, or other means. Societies govern communication, for example, to support copyright, privacy, or to help manage defamatory or illegal material. As the Internet becomes increasingly central to the way people communicate, it is also increasingly subject to governance.
Unfortunately, a number of problems commonly arise when dealing with governance of the Internet.
Regulations often don’t match the technology. Ordinarily, we use analogies to talk about technology; for example, we talk about “publishing a page”, but the actual process of putting up a web page is very different from physical publishing by making and distributing printed paper. So a rule “It’s okay to read this page, but you can’t make a copy of it” doesn’t acknowledge that, in order to read a page, the bits that make the page must necessarily be copied to the reader’s computer.
Different goals conflict. Law enforcement might require that a site owner keep records of everyone who posts information, in order to be able to track down those who post illegal or defamatory material, while, at the same time, privacy regulation might insist that the same site owner not keep records.
The internet is global, but governance is local. The jurisdiction of law, regulation and social values are geographically based, but the Internet has no simple boundaries. Yet values, regulation, laws from different jurisdictions are inconsistent, and often conflicting. Is it possible to conform to the norms of everyone from a single web site?
Technology standards can help reduce some of the difficulties by providing appropriate terminology, guidance and standards. For example, W3C standards for accessibility have helped reduce some of the unnecessary variability between accessibility guidelines in various countries. In another example, many countries have created regulations and laws that reference common standards for digital signatures of documents, which in turn helps extend the applications that can be supported by electronic communication.
Recently, as a member of the Technical Architecture Group of the World Wide Web Consortium, I’ve been helping produce a First Public Working Draft of a new document called Publishing and Linking on the Web.
This is the first step of getting community consensus on the document and any recommendations. Your thoughts are welcome! Please review the document, share it, discuss it, make comments. Only by discussion can we develop a a common understanding of the alignment of technology and values, and help standards groups, policy makers, and those building new Internet content and services.