We reject: kings, presidents and voting.
We believe in: rough consensus and running code.

David Clark M.I.T. Laboratory for Computer Science: “VIEWS OF THE FUTURE” "IETF July 1992"


Many barstools have borne the arses of commentators who, pausing for effect, waved their pint as they said, “The Internet is really about…”, and whatever nonsense followed, the reaction of the barstool was probably the appropriate one: a gentle sigh, and slow re-inflating recovery after the arse left.

Today, the Internet is too big, both in sheer numbers and in cultural valence, to be really “about” any particular thing. It’s in everything, and like everything else that’s in everything, it has no unitary identity. It long ago passed the threshold of being sufficiently abstract and big that we are almost inevitably going to read our own particular concerns into it, irrespective of the reality.

Muddying the waters is the tendency for writers to use the term Internet as if it meant one unitary thing, whereas the term admits of different definitions depending on your background and your viewpoint. For me, and for others of a similarly technical persuasion, what we commonly refer to as the Internet is a bunch of electronics and software strung together by approximate agreement as to how to pass bits of information around. Others take a political stance: the Internet is somehow supposed to represent or facilitate (it’s not always clear which) a mechanism for individual voices to be heard outside of the aegis of commercial or state control – an irrepressible platform guaranteeing freedom of expression, a view that gathered much support during the Arab SpringSee, for example, this article. . Still others take the opposite position, but in a political arena: the Internet facilitates and fosters State control, and in particular State or state actor surveillance, on a massive and intrusive scale unlike any other time in history, making it the foremost tool of oppression – a view that gained much currency after the revelations of Edward Snowden.See, for example, this Huffington Post article. There are limitations to reasoning by analogy, and here we see them; whatever place you start arguing from, you end up where you want.

Ultimately, avoiding analogies would be best; but if we have to, perhaps the most useful analogy is that of a tool. The Internet can be used for many things and what matters most is the intention of the folks with power to use that tool. In particular, those who assert that the Internet facilitates openness, freedom of speech, democracy or any qualities more properly attached to societies rather than networks are suffering from confirmation bias. For every website sharing cracked DVDs, there is also a dissident in jail blinking under flickering flourescent lightNot a one-to-one correspondence, obviously; poetic licence. – for every Egypt, there is also a Syria. I spoke to a Syrian refugee a while backPersonal communication. who lamented the success that the Syrian government had had in making the Internet effectively useless for facilitating dissent. The secret? For the convenience of totalitarian governments everywhere, I reproduce it here: make the Internet slow. It seems that the authorities have deliberately slowed communication down enough that Syrians hate using the Internet for anything other than the bare minimum of tasks. On the more aggressive side of the coin, there are also reportsSee this Time article. suggesting that Syrian dissidents were able to share movements on Twitter, but the government was able to round them up by examining their friend network on Facebook. Information is power, and power wants to be free.

Irish Governments and the Internet, Part 1

The political is impossible to avoid. So it is with the Internet. While the Irish Internet has been largely free of political dissidents being rounded up on foot of their friends on Facebook, the interaction between the Irish government in general and the Internet in particular has been – how to say – not without controversy. Successive Irish governments have found it impossible to have a consistent policy or set of attitudes towards this vitally important … thing … that it would appear they don’t understand.

Part of what makes it so difficult is the various different facets of the Internet as it appears today are so diverse in their effect. There is the Internet as bringer of jobs – effectively a shadow minister of employment with an offshore account; the Internet as disrupter of existing businesses and jobs – bringing fear and anxiety and a sense of impending loss of control; the Internet as saviour – provider of the social infrastructure that e.g. rural communities need to survive; the Internet as decentralised observer of the mendacities and inconsistencies of politicians. And those, it may be said, a whole Internet is required to store. But before we talk in detail about that, let us look at how Internet agencies, particularly those in Ireland, have run themselves.

Internet self-regulation

The reputation of Irish self-regulation is generally regarded to have suffered after the collapse of the property boom, mostly because of the zealousness with which “light-touch” regulation was promulgated by a bunch of organisations whose primary skill with light touches turned out to be pickpocketing the tax-payers wallet.

Before it was clear that so much money was at stake, Internet governance in Ireland was a relatively simple matter. Such industry organisations as existed generally got together with the idea of helping something get started (e.g.: DINX/INEX) or with the idea of helping provide input to, or steer the operation of, something (e.g. IEDR-FORUM, providing input to the .IE Domain Registry), or co-ordinate between a bunch of companies/organisations to promote the industry and give out awards (e.g. the ISPAI). It was mostly done by the people who were around and who cared at the time, and therefore many of the same people were seen in multiple groups, giving at times the impression of a closeted elite. This was somewhat unfair to the extent that the people who contributed to these things in the early days were generally unpaid and were not in a position to peddle influence for anything else. In fact, the community model of governance, as exemplified by RIPE, where the interested stakeholders get together and decide on how to do things by “rough consensus and running code”, at least had the virtue of being transparent. If a community made a bad decision, which occasionally it would, at least it would be doing it in the open and people who were committed could speak passionately against it, if they so chose. This was a mechanism predicated on respect between equals which happened to look a little like democracy if you squinted in one particular direction and technocracy if you squinted in the other, but it did have the great virtue of being somewhat functional for many years. Supporters of this model of governance point to it as one of the key cultural factors allowing the Internet to develop as far and as fast as it could. No mean achievement, that, say the supporters, and who could disagree?

In the later phase of Internet governance development, however, many of these community-based governance mechanisms found themselves undermined or replaced by other mechanisms which did not interface quite so directly with the engaged public. As a person who has interfaced quite a bit with the public in the past, I have a lot of sympathy for the instinct to manage that interaction, lest an organisation gum itself up with consultations and provide a platform for people on matters that often have nothing to do with the organisation. However, the tendency for criticism-shy people to shut the doors entirely on valuable feedback leads to, for example, the undignified spectacle of Direct Democracy Ireland, a new political party, apparently declaring through a founder member that “We cannot be totally democratic or we’d be dead in the water”.See this Irish Examiner article, but the tendency is visible in many other organisations. (Seems like that name might require a bit of reworking, if this is indeed the approach. Indirect Democracy Ireland, anyone?)

As well as experiencing the disappointment of seeing organisations who had hitherto treated their stakeholders with more direct engagement retreating from that behaviour, there were many in the Internet community who became disillusioned with the whole process of community-based steering, feeling that what it had produced was not in fact a shining example of problem-solving, but a thrown-together mish-mash full of problems.See for example Dave Clark, the Aldus Dumbledore of the Internet, in this article in technology review wherein he campaigns for a fundamental reworking of the entire Internet to address these very concerns. Furthermore, critics also pointed out that the “rough consensus and running code” approach had only really ever been applied to relatively technocratic situations, and the mutual respect in the early days was predicated on the stakeholders and the organisers being essentially the same group of people.

For many different reasons, then, we saw somewhat of a movement away from community-led, stakeholder-driven organisations as the Internet developed and became more mainstream. Older organisations retrenched and removed some accountability; newer organisations chose different models to run their business, or picked from a deck stacked with the International Telecommunications Union of spades rather than the RIPE of hearts.

However, models of governance that are approximately “bottom-up” models have been responsible for success in arenas other than the purely technical – even in Ireland. The campaign by Digital Rights Ireland to overturn the Irish government’s data retention laws can be viewed as one such, although it could be argued it does not fully meet the definition of “bottom-up” – again, Digital Rights Ireland may well be viewed as a group of elites rather than ordinary “people power”. The rejection of e-Voting is another (of which, more shortly.)

It would, however, seem that we haven’t done consistently well with purely bottom-up organisations in this arena.The situation is, of course, more complicated than that, and requires balancing. Mike Norris, ex-HEAnet CTO, commented to me that maintaining the involvement of all the members is important, although conversely a very open model means that members can get pissed off by one psychotic in their midst. Additionally, there is a danger that things become fossilised when the same people decide the same questions without any dynamism or challenge: if there is no renewal built into the model, people can be on the board forever. Ultimately freedom means nothing unless it’s freedom from the person you disagree with. Take user-related lobby groups for example. With the exception of Ireland Off-Line, which you might consider a lobby group attempting to address essentially commercial wrongs, the most serious attempt I am aware of to found any specifically Internet-related lobby group for specifically Irish Internet users in general would have been the attempt to start a chapter of the Internet Society in the early noughties. After much to-ing and fro-ing, it eventually foundered when the main proponent of it left the country; until someone else took up the baton in late 2015, no-one was bothered enough to reactivate it.

In truth, it might seem as ridiculous to have a lobby group for Internet users as it would to have a lobby group for all people who use toilets; after all, the size of the stakeholder group is similar, and they have about as much in common. We can console ourselves with the thought that at least the Irish population at large have Digital Rights Ireland engaged on the topic of Internet rights and it has been shown to be effective in in the past, although it is far from clear what would happen if the major figures were to suddenly lose interest.

Spinning around the drain

Those same bar-stool occupiers often say that whoever is in power in Ireland is never reluctant to turn up to a launch event and accept partial creditAs well as being partial to champagne, they claim. whatever the realities of the situation. More sober commentators would probably acknowledge that any government genuinely welcomes anything that creates employment, and likes the type of jobs that typically comes from the high-tech sector, viewing them as less likely to move elsewhere where there is cheaper labour, as well as usually funnelling more money to the state in terms of higher levels of income tax. This is true, just as it is true that if our livelihoods depended on turning up to receptions and making nice, we ourselves would probably be found doing just that. So much is in the domain of accepted, perhaps even enlightened, self-interest. Ministers are caught with their hands in the publicity jar because there are strong incentives to do so, in terms of retaining their job, and to expect otherwise would be naive. They should not be criticised for it.

There are a number of things they can be criticised for, however. Upsettingly, much of this began so promisingly: the engagement of the Irish government with matters technical (and specifically matters Internet-related) could have been described in the early Internet period as cheer-leading, if not outright boosterism. Widely perceived as helping employment and foreign direct investment, a key plank of multiple Irish government’s economic policy, the Celtic Tiger’s connectivity needs could often compel ministers to be photographed half-way down a fibre shaft.

However, from those reasonably friendly but opportunistic beginnings, it’s been a long road downhill since. According to TJ McIntyre, UCD law lecturer and chair of Digital Rights Ireland, whatever good the government has done with respect to the Internet is generally a result of benign neglect, with one example of good resulting from positive intent and action:

The Irish government’s one claim to fame was that in 2000 it got ahead of the game and adopted an electronic commerce act earlier than other countries and it got in, before it was going to be required to do so by the later requirements of the e-Commerce Directive. So for a brief period in 2000, we were ahead of the game. Ever since then, we’ve stayed at 2000, while other countries have moved ahead. I think it’s telling. What was that [directive]? It was an electronic commerce act. It wasn’t an electronic freedoms act.

That is indeed an interesting illustration of priorities, although you could argue that it was about enabling other people (and in particular Irish citizens) to work with money online rather than specifically being about money rather than freedom. However, there’s no doubt that the almighty Euro is behind a lot of the thinking here:

The Irish government sees certainly the web-sector and I think the high-tech sector more generally as nothing more than a cash-cow. There is no coherent policy or anything. I was at the OSCE Conference on Internet Freedom recently and I wrote a blog post about it saying that “apathy is not a policy”. I looked at domestic law and the point is that there is almost no domestic law and what there is, is generally hostile to internet freedom. To quote from the post, Irish rights online are largely the result of apathy, and apathy is not a policy. Indeed, to the extent that there is internet freedom in Ireland it is due to the lack of regulations, not the pro-active result of regulations. At OSCE Conferences, [the] sheer ignorance of the Irish government in this area is striking to me. For example, who does the Irish government invite to speak on a panel about internet freedom?

Go on, guess.

Bear in mind now, that you had representatives from international organisations on freedom of expression. You had a blogger from Kazakhstan, who had been threatened, who had been attacked and who was ultimately forced out and living in exile in London, talking about his experiences. You had a variety of other speakers talking about general internet freedom of expression. Who did the Irish government invite? The solicitor acting for the music companies suing the ISPs! An example of repression rather than freedom of expression. The absurdity was something else. Did I get an invitation to speak on that panel? Absolutely not, but Helen Sheehy, the solicitor acting on behalf of the music industry, did. And that is an example of this type of absurdity of government policy in this area. There is no government coherence here. There is no government sense of what to do here. There is nothing more than this cash-cow attitude.

Negative though that characterisation might be, there is a much larger body of evidence to support it, than the opposite. For a long while, the government did not fundamentally understand how this “Internet” thing worked, and what it did not understand, it feared. This fear expressed itself in many ways, but primarily as over-reactions: a “data retention” scheme severe enough to be stricken down by the EU court of justice; multiply-voiced “concerns” about social media (usually concerns about how people are using it for saying “bad” or uncomfortable things); and a worrying tendency to set up committees to look into things at the drop of a packet, often with some nebulous hints that Something Must Be Done.

But the government’s most intensely fearful relationship is with that website best optimised for the pithy putdown: Twitter. As a platform for highly constrained near-real-time communication it is unparalleled, but quite why it has lodged close to the heart of Irish officialdom is far from clear. Yet it unquestionably has. It was deeply involved in the pyrotechnics of the 2011 Irish presidential electionSome commentators alleged that the result was determined by the intervention; but some calculations performed by Stephen Cass, and checked by myself shows that it was not. (See this sheet for more details.) where a comment originated on Twitter and read out during the live debate between the presidential candidates caused the then front-runner, Sean Gallagher, to confess on television that he had “collected an EUR 5,000 cheque for a Fianna Fáil fundraiser event from a man he described as a ‘convicted criminal and fuel smuggler’.” Additionally, it was social media in general that was identified – without much in the way of supporting evidence – as being behind the tragic suicide of Fine Gael minister of State, Shane McEntee.See, for example, this article claiming abuse led to his difficulties, and this interview with his daughter wherein she says that it didn’t. Anyone who attempts to tune into the mood of the nation via the medium of the radio talk shows or the television politics programmes knows that whenever anything of significance – or indeed insignificance – happens, the Irish electorate is wont to take to its “Twitter machine”See e.g. this article. in order to make itself heard. And not just the electorate; the politicans also occasionally take the law into their own hands, in one hundred and forty character chunks: Chris Andrews, an ex-FF TD who took to Twitter under a false account name in order to berate senior party leadership on their policies and achievements, but had the misfortune of his blast radius happening to intersect with a woman, working in PR, whose husband, Eddy Carroll, is exceptionally technically gifted.I used to associate with him in Amiga computer club days, so take it from me. Eddy tracked down Chris and unmasked the deception.The Independent has the story here. Whatever about armchair vigilantism, most of the recent reactions by government would appear from the outside to be motivated by basic fear, leavened with a dash of ignorance.

Perhaps the most cringe-inducing example of incompetence (with, unfortunately, quite some competition for that role) would be the story of the Irish Government’s relationship with e-voting, which very much deserves an article of its own.

Governance and Government - January 1, 2015 - Niall Richard Murphy