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Essay by David Bollier: "The Next Great Internet Disruption: Authority and Governance"

Very promising essay by David Bollier. Can government change like Wikimedia disturbed Encyclopedia Britannica, retailing in all sectors, the music industry, metropolitan daily newspapers and book publishing?

The Next Great Internet Disruption: Authority and Governance

An excerpt:

A Network Architecture for Group Forming Networks

"If we take Reed’s analysis of network dynamics seriously, and apply his logic to the contemporary scene, it becomes clear that the best way to unlock enormous stores of value on networks is to develop tools that can facilitate GFNs.  This will be the next great Internet disruption.  But to achieve this, we must develop a network architecture and software systems that can build trust and social capital in user-centric, scalable ways.

Necessarily, this means that we must begin to re-imagine the very nature of authority and governance.  We must invent new types of digital institutions that are capable of administering authority recognized as authentic and use algorithmic tools to craft and enforce “law.”

The idea that conventional institutions of governance (and government) may have to change may seem like a far-fetched idea.  Who dares to question the venerable system of American government?  Traditions are deeply rooted and seemingly rock-solid.  But why should government be somehow immune from the same forces that have disrupted Encyclopedia Britannica, retailing in all sectors, the music industry, metropolitan daily newspapers and book publishing?  Based on existing trends, we believe the next wave of Internet disruptions is going to re-define the nature of authority and governance.  It is going to transform existing institutions of law and create new types of legal institutions – “code as law,” as Lawrence Lessig famously put it.

Governance is about legitimate authority making decisions that are respected by members of a given community.  These decisions generally allocate rights of access and usage of resources, among other rights and privileges.  Such governance generally requires a capacity to assert and validate who we are – to determine our identity in one aspect or another.  That’s what is happening when the state issues us birth certificates, passports, Social Security numbers and drivers’ licenses.  It is assigning us identities that come with certain privileges, duties and sanctions.  This is the prerogative of institutions of governance – the ability to do things to you and for you.  Institutions set criteria for our entitlements to certain civic, political, economic and cultural benefits.  In the case of religious institutions, such authority even extends to the afterlife!

The power to govern is often asserted, but it may or may not be based on authentic social consent.  This is an important issue because open networks are changing the nature of legitimate authority and the consent of the governed.  User communities are increasingly asserting their own authority, assigning identities to people, and allocating rights and privileges in the manner of any conventional institution.  Anonymous, Five Star Movement, the Pirate Party, Arab Spring, Lulzsec and Occupy are notable examples of such grassroots, network-enabled movements – and there are plenty of other instances in which distributed networks of users work together toward shared goals in loosely coordinated, bottom-up ways.  Such “smart mobs” – elementary forms of GFNs – are showing that they have the legitimacy and legal authority and the economic and cultural power to act as “institutions” with a modicum of governance power.

This is where Reed’s law and the proliferation of open networks, amplified by the ubiquity of mobile devices is starting to make things very interesting.  If the means to facilitate GFNs can be taken to more secure and trusted levels, empowering cooperative action on larger scales, it opens up a vast new realm of opportunity for value-creation above and beyond Web 2.0 platforms.

This vision is especially attractive in light of the structural limitations of large, centralized institutions of government and commerce.  By virtue of their (antiquated) design, they simply are not capable of solving the challenges we are demanding of them.  Conventional legislation, regulations and litigation are simply too crude and unresponsive to provide governance that is seen as legitimate and responsive.  As for social networking platforms, they typically rely upon proprietary business models that collect and sell personal information about users, which is exposing another sort of structural barrier:  social distrust.  Businesses based on such revenue-models cannot help but stifle the GFN potential described by Reed’s Law."

Group Forming Networks and Big Data

"The promise of self-organized network governance – a new type of Group Forming Network – holds a great deal of appeal when it comes to Big Data.  We now live in a world of ubiquitous digital networks and databases that contain vast amounts of personal information about individuals.  GFNs could help us overcome the legal and regulatory impasse that we now face with respect to the management of such personal data.  Neither Congress, executive agencies or the courts are likely to come up with a set of responsive policies that can keep pace with technological innovation and thwart players of ill-intent.

Ever since Hobbes proposed the State as the only viable alternative to the dread state of nature, citizens have entered into a notional “social contract” with “the Leviathan” to protect their safety and basic rights.  But if networked technologies could enable individuals to negotiate their own social contract(s) and meet their needs more directly and responsively, it would enable the emergence of new sorts of effective, quasi-autonomous governance and self-provisioning.  And it could achieve these goals without necessarily or directly requiring government.  Online communities working in well-designed software environments could act more rapidly, with highly specific knowledge and with greater social legitimacy than conventional government institutions.  Users, acting individually and in groups, could use their own secure digital identities to manage their own personal information.

This scenario is inspired not just by David Reed’s analysis of how to reap value from networks, but by the extensive scholarship of Professor Elinor Ostrom, the Nobel Laureate in economics in 2009.  Ostrom identified key principles by which self-organized groups can manage common-pool resources in fair, sustainable ways.  If data were to be regarded as a common-pool resource, Ostrom’s research shows how it would be possible for online groups to devise their own data commons to manage their personal data in their own interests.

Of course, “law” emerging from self-organized digital institutions would have a very different character than the kinds of law emanating from Congress and the Supreme Court (just as blogging is a different from journalism and Wikipedia is different from Encyclopedia Britannica).  “Digital law” would be algorithmic in the sense that machine-learning would help formulate and administer the law and enforce compliance.  It would enable users to devise new types of legal contracts that are computationally expressible and executable, as well as evolvable and auditable.  Such an innovation would make institutional corruption and insider collusion far easier to detect and eliminate.  Arcane systems of law – once based on oral traditions and printed texts – could make the great leap to computable code, providing powerful new platforms for governance.  Law that is dynamic, evolvable and outcome-oriented would make the art of governance subject to the iterative innovations of Moore’s Law.  Designs could be experimentally tested, evaluated by actual outcomes, and made into better iterations."

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