Category Archives: Academia

Internet freedom in Sweden — a primer

Sweden ramps up a major foreign policy initiative this week when it hosts the inaugural Stockholm Internet Forum, bringing together 300 technologists, activists and scholars from around the world to brainstorm “Internet freedom for global development”. By linking net freedom to social development, Sweden becomes one of a handful of countries for which defending the rights of Internet users beyond its borders is now an explicit foreign policy goal.

Underlying this policy of promoting Internet freedom abroad lies the assumption that there is Internet freedom within. So just how free are people emailing in Umeå, linking in Linköping or downloading in Dalarna? From a policy perspective, is the set of laws regulating Internet use inside Sweden worth emulating abroad?

To answer these questions, it helps to to look at six facets of Internet freedom that have come to loom large as ever-greater parts of our lives are lived online: Connectivity, transparency, censorship, surveillance, privacy and copyright. How does Sweden fare in each of these areas?

Connectivity
Sweden is one of the world’s best-connected countries, with around 90% of households having access to the Internet. It was also one of the earliest countries to see a majority of its population online — by 2001 — in part because regulations promoting competition ensured shared access to Internet infrastructure, keeping prices far below the European average.

On the other hand, network operators are free to prioritize the different types of data they deliver to subscribers; there is no legal requirement to be “network neutral”, though most are, given the competitive landscape. Overall, argues Patrik Fältström, head of research at the Swedish Internet infrastructure organization Netnod, the result has been positive: “The access you get when you buy simple broadband access is more open than most other places on the planet,” he says.

Transparency
One response to having so many Swedes online so quickly was to move government services there. In Sweden it has long been possible to file taxes online. Since 2003, Sweden has an e-government task force dedicated to delivering all government services — municipal, county and national — online. By 2008, it topped the UN’s global e-government readiness rankings.

Providing e-services is one thing; compelling government agencies to make their public datasets available online in free and open formats has proven far harder, despite a long tradition of making (analog) documents public. In part, this is due to vague directives that have let reluctant bureaucracies drag their feet.

Sweden thus lags behind “open government” leaders, notably the US and UK, and is alone among Scandinavian countries in not having a national open data portal. There are individual successes, such as the open data portal by Sweden’s international aid agency SIDA. Overall, still only one third of Swedish public data sources are available online in an open and free format.

Censorship
In Sweden there is no law that compels Internet service providers (ISPs) to block access to sites. ISPs voluntarily collaborate with police to block a centralized list of sites trafficking in child sexual abuse.

And yet such a system is not ideal, argues Marcin de Kaminski, an Internet researcher at the department of Sociology of Law at Lund University. That’s because there is no transparency in how the blacklist is maintained. “There is no way to legally appeal a list entry, for instance,” he says, ” and there is no third-party control of what is actually blocked.”

The risk, then, is that an unregulated block list could end up being used as a political tool — perhaps not in Sweden, where trust in the police is high and there is widespread disdain for censorship — but in other countries looking to adopt the Swedish model of Internet regulation. “Even though the Swedish blocklist has these flaws,” says de Kaminski, “it is used as a role model in the European discussion about block lists.”

Surveillance
In 2008 Sweden’s parliament narrowly passed a law that lets its signals intelligence agency (FRA) monitor the content of all cross-border cable-based Internet traffic to combat “external threats” such as terrorism and organized crime — but only after obtaining court permission on a case-per-case basis, and upon the explicit request of government or defense agencies. In 2012 parliament broadly passed the “Data Retention Directive” (DLD) which compels ISPs to store the who, where, and when (but not the what) of online communication within Sweden for six months, in case law enforcement agencies come calling for their investigations with a court order.

The FRA law has proven controversial in Sweden; the DLD law not so much. One reason is that they both exist within a European context, where EU directives guide how national legislatures are meant to implement laws. While the DLD law implements a minimal version of the European Data Retention Directive of 2006, the FRA law goes beyond the directive’s scope by allowing the surveillance of content.

Privacy
Sweden’s Data Inspection Board has long worked to ensure that personal information stays protected when handled by government agencies, businesses and people. The Internet has greatly transformed its role, which now includes combating cyberbullying and regulating use of cloud-based data storage. One complicating factor is that many of the services people use to share personal data — Facebook, Google — lie outside Sweden’s jurisdiction. Another is the natural tension between the right to privacy and the right to free expression and a free press, with that balance scrambled by the rise of blogs and semi-private publishing on social media platforms.

Copyright
File sharing is popular in Sweden, especially among youth, even though much of it is illegal under Swedish copyright law. In an effort to enforce copyright protection online, parliament in 2009 broadly passed a law implementing the EU directive on intellectual property rights enforcement (IPRED). The law allows criminal prosecution and jail terms for heavy illegal file sharers, and compels ISPs to identify suspected offenders upon request by a court of law.

Unlike France, Sweden’s implementation of IPRED does not cut off Internet access for repeat offenders. Swedish courts have also ruled that the right to privacy of suspected occasional file sharers trumps the interests of copyright holders, curtailing IPRED’s scope to more serious cases. Sweden’s IPRED law is currently being challenged in the European Court of Justice for violating European personal integrity laws.

A more encompassing international treaty, the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) has been signed by EU member states but has not yet been ratified.

Both IPRED and ACTA are proving controversial, especially with Swedish youth. Sweden’s Pirate Party parlayed this popular discontent into its first ever European Parliament seats in 2009. Criticism comes in several flavors: Pirate Party supporters wants to overhaul the very notion of copyright, so that the online remix culture and other non-commercial uses of creative content are exempt from regulation. Says Rick Falkvinge, founder of the Pirate Party: “The civil liberties that our parents enjoyed offline must carry over into the online world.”

Others worry that the enforcement laws being implemented have their priorities wrong, or are too intrusive. Argues de Kaminski: “What we need to do is establish rights and principles of freedom concerning the Internet — so that we have a free, open and secure base to begin with. Then we can start to discuss the necessary exceptions.”

Conclusion
When it comes to assessing the FRA, DLD and IPRED laws, the block list and privacy protections, it is worth remembering that they operate within a specific Swedish context. Replicating these laws may not produce the same results in places that do not also have Sweden’s negligible corruption, high levels of trust in public institutions, and a culture of free expression — non-legislated norms. Internet Freedom in Sweden is determined by more than the sum of its legislative parts.

An edited version of this article is available on Sweden.se, for which it was commissioned.

Collaborative power: The case for Sweden

Two weeks ago in Stockholm, half a dozen technologists hunkered down for a whole-day workshop with Sweden’s foreign-facing government agencies (the usual suspects: The Swedish Institute, VisitSweden, the Swedish Trade Council and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs).

The assignment: Brainstorming the future of Sweden’s digital public diplomacy.

Part of my presentation looked at the evolving nature of the power wielded by states as societies get networked digitally, and how a new theoretical framework might be needed to explain what has been happening in the Middle East and elsewhere this year. Intriguingly, a recently proposed network-centric theory of power appears to favor Sweden’s open and collaborative nature as a multiplier of its influence globally.

Soft power and hard power

The now well-known notion of soft power as a success factor in international affairs was first introduced by the noted political theorist Joseph Nye as recently as 1990, just as the end of the Cold War broadened opportunities for states to pursue goals by means other than the coercive “hard power” embedded in military might and financial means. Soft power works not through coercion but through the attraction derived from positive perceptions of a nation’s cultural and social institutions; states will often attempt to manage such goodwill to shape preferences internationally so that they align with their own interests. (It’s called “nation branding” for a reason.)

Within this soft power/hard power conceptual framework, some states are clearly superpowers. The US has long been one in both dimensions, with military and financial supremacy as well as the lure of its world-beating universities, blockbuster movies, music industry and (until recently) openness to immigration. (Hard and soft power can work at cross-purposes, however: Nye in 2004 argued that the hard power expended on an elective war in Iraq was poisonous to America’s soft power.) Japan is a soft superpower but not a hard superpower. China is a hard superpower but not a soft superpower — its immense social and cultural capital is hobbled by an authoritarian state’s predilection for internal stability and a growing regional hegemony that breeds mistrust among its neighbors. Sweden’s small size and limited resources disbar it from superpower status in either realm, but it does manage to punch above its weight in the soft power stakes, not least because it often inhabits the positive extremes of global indices measuring innovation, economic equality, quality of life, creativity

Power in the networked century

In an oft-quoted article in Foreign Affairs from January 2009 (direct PDF download), Anne-Marie Slaughter — a professor of international affairs at Princeton and an old student of Nye’s — began updating this framework to incorporate the rise of the Internet and the digital networks it affords:

In this world, the measure of power is connectedness. Almost 30 years ago, the psychologist Carol Gilligan wrote about differences between the genders in their modes of thinking. She observed that men tend to see the world as made up of hierarchies of power and seek to get to the top, whereas women tend to see the world as containing webs of relationships and seek to move to the center. Gilligan’s observations may be a function of nurture rather than nature; regardless, the two lenses she identified capture the differences between the twentieth-century and the twenty-first-century worlds.

Slaughter sees the rise of digital networks as fundamentally positive for American power — hence the title of her piece, “America’s Edge: Power in the networked century”:

In this world, the state with the most connections will be the central player, able to set the global agenda and unlock innovation and sustainable growth. Here, the United States has a clear and sustainable edge.

Collaborative power

Since then, her thinking has evolved. Back in 2009, she did not explicitly refer to the hard power/soft power framework of her mentor, but in a new article published a few weeks ago in The Atlantic, she contends that Nye’s framework lacks analytical clout with the kind of power that dramatically upended a slew of regimes in the Middle East this year.

Her main point is that Nye’s concept of power is limited to that of “power over” others, whereas the new kind of power mustered on Tahrir Square and in Tunisia is “power with”. The former is top-down, defined in terms of relationships between groups (“relational power”), while the latter is bottom-up, guided and enabled by the logic of informal networks, including digital ones. The term Slaughter settles on for this new power varietal is “collaborative power”.

Briefly, (do go read her piece), Slaughter juxtaposes some key traits of relational and collaborative power. While relational power is wielded by a specific group to command action, collaborative power can be mobilized by calls to action from any number of connected groups with an urgent need. While relational power aims to control agendas and hierarchies so as to better shape the preferences of others, collaborative power is all about broadening access to the network, and adapting one’s own preferences to better communicate with it — to better “move to the center” of the network. Collaborative power “is an emergent phenomenon — the property of a complex set of interconnections. Leaders can learn to unlock it and guide it, but they do not possess it.”

How is the United States positioned to “unlock and guide” this collaborative power so it aligns with its own interests? How is Sweden positioned?

Advantage Sweden

In her 2009 essay, Slaughter lists a series of cultural, social and demographic traits the US possesses which give it an edge in this “networked century”. In most cases, to the extent that these traits favor the US, they also favor Sweden. My hypothesis is that Sweden is very well positioned to become a collaborative superpower, in some case more so than the United States — especially in the Middle East.

Small population

Slaughter posits that in the networked age, a small population is an asset: While territory and population are certainly resources that have contributed to hard power, global trade now ensures that a state’s wealth is no longer tied to the size of its internal market. Smaller populations are more manageable, politically, in part because they are less prone to secessionism. Slaughter considers the US, with its 300+ million people, to have a limited population, at least when compared to that of China or India.

At 9.4 million, Sweden’s population is similar to that of New York City, and over an order of magnitude smaller than that of the US. And while the US is not riven by secessionism (pace Alaska and Texas and Puerto Rico and Hawai’i) its political system is besieged by an increasingly ideological intransigence that has some regional bias. In Sweden, meanwhile, mere policy tweaks separate the left from the right, and the electorate resolutely favors technocrats over populists.

Immigration

Immigrants are an asset in the networked age, because they contribute strong trusted connections back to their country of origin, facilitating trade and the spread of ideas. (The Economist most recently chimed in on the benefits of diaspora networks.) America’s famed heterogeneity is rightly tagged by Slaughter as a magnet for the world’s creatives and entrepreneurs, no matter what their origin.

But while the US has always been attractive to immigrants, America’s immigration policy is no longer requiting their overtures. Post 9/11, there’s been a turning inward, a hardening towards the notion of immigration. Slaughter acknowledges this, calling for US immigration reform that recognizes the positive impact of diaspora communities.

Sweden, in contrast, is often perceived as a homogeneous nation of blue-eyed gentle giants. But the numbers tell a different story. 14.7% of its population is foreign-born, a percentage that is rising. The US foreign-born population stands at 12.5% of the total, and is stagnant or declining in absolute terms. Granted, a portion of Sweden’s foreign-born population, like myself, hails from the rest of Europe, but that is the case for the US as well.

Sweden has long had a generous asylum policy, welcoming Chileans fleeing Pinochet, Iranians fleeing the mullahs, and most recently, Iraqi Assyrians fleeing religious persecution in the aftermath of the Iraq war. One town alone in Sweden took in more Iraqi refugees than all of the United States combined.

And alone among its Nordic neighbors, Sweden appears to have inoculated itself against immigration fatigue; the anti-immigrant Sverigedemokraterna party remains on the fringes, with a stagnant 5-6% support in opinion polls.

Immigrants, then, are set to remain a strong asset for Sweden in forging trusted networks with the rest of the world.

Global engagement

Another competitive advantage, according to Slaughter, is that America’s youth is increasingly seeking international exposure.

John Zogby, the influential pollster, calls Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 “the First Globals,” a group he describes as “more networked and globally engaged than members of any similar age cohort in American history.”

The problem is that global engagement has historically not been America’s strong suit (with a notable and appreciated exception in WWII). It’s great that this latest cohort of Americans to deserve a moniker are using their passports “far more frequently” than older generations, but the historical comparisons are not that hard to beat.

It’s safe to say that nothing comes close to the Swedish zeal for global immersion. Swedish backpackers swarm the hostels of the world, while Swedish families lord it over the slopes and beaches. The evidence is not just anecdotal: Some rather gruesome statistics for the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami list casualties for countries that lost citizens travelling abroad in the region. Sweden suffered 543 casualties in that disaster, second only to Germany’s 552, and compared to 51 American deaths. The casualty rate per million inhabitants is truly shocking: Sweden lost 58.1 citizens per million, followed by Finland’s 33.4 and Norway’s 17.3. The United States, in comparison, lost 0.2 citizens per million. In terms of global engagement, the First Globals have a lot of catching up to do.

Innovation

Slaughter argues that the United States is far more innovative than China, because innovation requires a cultural inclination towards “constructive conflict”, the kind that drives creative destruction and which is found “on American playing fields, in American courtrooms, and in the American political system.” Innovation requires not just critical thinking but the challenging of authority, says Slaughter, and that is a trait China’s rulers are simply not willing to encourage.

The comparison to China is understandable, in view of the oft-proclaimed trope that this is Asia’s century. But the conflict model of innovation is not the only model available to the Chinese as they seek to emulate western success in the information economy. The Swedish innovation model, much admired by visiting Chinese dignitaries when it was the centerpiece of the Swedish pavilion at the Shanghai Expo in 2010, stresses a catalytic role for the state in fostering collaboration between companies, universities and research institutes. A Swedish governmental agency, VINNOVA, actively searches out societal challenges to prioritize, then sets about building broad consensual alliances to tackle them. Its strategies include:

Promoting new, cross-sector collaborations to find solutions to needs; solutions to social and societal challenges are rarely found in one traditional sector or a single research field. New collaboration patterns are emerging between actors in different value chains; for example ‘green urban transportation’ is being developed at the interface between energy, automotive engineering and ICT.

Hints of this kind of strategizing can be found in how China has begun promoting industry alliances around emerging green technologies.

Different innovation models suit different national temperaments born of historical contingencies — Sweden and the US should under no circumstances switch models. Two observations are worth making, however: First, conflict-driven innovation is not as network-friendly as collaborative innovation — the former is firmly rooted in the dynamics of relational power. Collaborative innovation is far better suited to the projection of collaborative power, according to Slaughter’s own network-centric theory of power. Second, global innovation metrics show that while both Sweden and the US do well in global rankings (Sweden comes second after Switzerland, the US is in seventh place, vs 29th place for China) most other countries in the top 10 have innovation models similar to Sweden’s. America may be exceptional, but it is not peerless.

Trust and transparency

Slaughter writes in her 2009 essay:

Although trust and transparency are not unique to the United States, it is still one of the most open societies in the world. The Internet world, the wiki world, and the networked world all began in the United States and radiated outward.

The US sets the gold standard for its embrace of open government data, especially after the initiatives by Obama’s administration over the past few years. Most NGOs that embrace networks to mobilize for government accountability, net freedom or democratization have American roots, a marriage of America’s talent for civic-mindedness with a vibrant can-do hacker culture. The academic institutions studying Internet and society are also predominantly American. Events such as the Personal Democracy Forum in New York are a Mecca for networked activists the world over. Such thought leadership is a great asset in the networked era.

But hard power prerogatives can and do undercut this reputation. The US government’s reaction to the Wikileaks diplomatic cable dump betrayed a controlling muscle reflex over American companies such as Mastercard, Paypal and Amazon that worked against the public interest. America’s hard superpower legacy requires it to adopt all kinds of realpolitik-al stances that are inimical to the ideal of openness and transparency. The public airing of such machinations through Wikileaks led to a hypocritical and extrajudicial response that even Slaughter was caught up in.

Sweden’s diplomacy is a far more open book, with a foreign minister that tweets from the hip, and where the electorate expects public positions on international issues to match what is privately communicated. Of course there is secrecy, but it is in the service of discretion, not conspiracy. I suspect an equivalent leak of Swedish diplomatic cables would be far less damaging to Sweden.

Middle East politics

In the Middle East, America’s legacy of hard-power politics interferes with the trust-building needed to direct collaborative power. US-funded initiatives to promote Internet freedom and digital activism are seen as tainted with murkier US policy goals. Tunisian blogger Sami ben Gharbia spelled out the problem at length in a much-noted essay from 2010, when the US still counted Mubarak and Ben Ali as allies:

I don’t see the new [US] Internet Freedom policy as independent from the broader and decades-old US foreign policy, which has been based on practical rather than ethical and moral considerations such as the support for human rights. As we all know in this part of the world, in the name of a short-termed realpolitik, the US has been supporting all kind of dictatorships at the expense of democratic and reformist movements and aspirations.

Over the past four years, Sweden has funded an initiative in the Middle East to build trusted networks between young activists and opinion leaders, both across the region and with their Swedish counterparts. Each year, participants in the Young Leaders Visitors Program (YLVP) are invited to Sweden for a few weeks of networking, training, seminars and internships. Some alumni have ended up among the youth leaders of the Arab Spring. (Full disclosure — I have been involved peripherally with training and reporting.)

Sensitive to the possibility that Sweden sponsoring such a program might be characterized as outside meddling in the internal affairs of another state, we surveyed YLVP alumni for feedback in May 2011. A large majority said that such a characterization would be unfair. Surprisingly, to the extent that some felt YLVP did amount to “outside meddling”, they were in favor of it.

We then asked how they would feel if YLVP were funded by a country such as the US, UK or France. A larger group was wary. Polled for their reasons, here are some typical responses:

“It’s a Swedish initiative and so it should stay. Sweden is perceived as being neutral while if France or the US started to sponsor such programs, we would start to question the neutrality of the program.”

“Having the UK, US or France organize any event targeting youth will definitely raise red flags, which means they might be perceived as holding a different/unknown agenda to take advantage of the fragile situation in the Middle East. I dont think any Jordanian, as a result, would participate.”

In fairness to Slaughter, she was well aware in early 2009 that President Bush’s disastrous Middle East policies would take some time to recover from:

On January 20, 2009, Barack Obama will set about restoring the moral authority of the United States. The networked world provides a hopeful horizon.

But the networked world has not so much served as a tool in this restoration as an autonomous organism highly attuned to discrepancies between words and deeds. In the Middle East, Obama’s two inspirational speeches on US diplomacy in the region were no match on Twitter for his administration’s subsequent inability (or unwillingness) to hold its closest allies — Saudi Arabia, Israel, Bahrain — to account for their continued flouting of human rights laws.

In her Atlantic article from two weeks ago, Slaughter’s case study on the effective use of collaborative power narrates the recent spontaneous Twitter initiative to press for the release of the Egyptian-American journalist/activist Mona Eltahawy after she was detained by Egyptian security forces near Tahrir Square. I do not however see this as an example of the state mobilizing a networked collaboration of activists to achieve a positive outcome — rather, the reverse: Activists successfully mobilized America’s hard-power influence over the Egyptian military regime via Slaughter’s State Department contacts.

Horizontal societies for horizontal networks

Slaughter’s 2009 essay also identifies a social trend in the US that impedes it from benefiting fully from the horizontal nature of networks:

A networked world requires a genuinely networked society, which means fostering economic and social equality. The United States has never been as egalitarian as it imagines itself to be, but this divide has worsened in the past decade, as the rich have become the superrich.

While the Kingdom of Sweden is also not as egalitarian as it imagines itself to be, it is by at least one major measure the world’s most egalitarian society: Sweden’s Gini coefficient, which measures income inequality, is the world’s lowest at 0.23. (The US, at 0.45, ranks 100th out of 140, according to the CIA World Fact Book). Other more offbeat pointers to a deeply horizontal society include sky-high choral participation rates, near-universal Internet access, the concept of “lagom“, and the invention and embrace of the ombudsman.

A division of labor?

At the risk of having been long-winded, I hope I’ve made the case that Sweden is well positioned to thrive in the networked century. A nimble, innovative and open society such as Sweden has all the right qualifications to mesh itself deeply within trusted networks that are able to mobilize collaborative power.

The notion of Sweden as a collaborative superpower can sound boastful to modest Swedish ears, but it is important to remember that collaborative power is not the ability to command a network; rather it is the ability to align with a trusted network so that common ideals can be fought for and achieved far more effectively.

Many of these ideals — open societies, democracy, Internet freedom — are shared by the US, Sweden and by the Arab youth at the vanguard of the Arab revolutions. But if a lack of trust is preventing US-funded initiatives from effectively connecting with the networks driving these revolutions, then perhaps the best solution is for the US not to spend more resources knocking on locked doors. Leave the job of networked collaboration in the Middle East to countries not afflicted with hard power, such as Sweden.

The distinction between soft power and collaborative power can be blurry at the edges: Much of what contributes to soft power can also position a country for collaborative power. But soft power is often a resource-intensive pursuit — money does buy brains, build research institutes, and feed starving artists — whereas collaborative power is relationship-intensive — its currency is trust, which enables collective action towards a common goal. And Swedes are easy to trust, in part because they are always seeking consensus: It is what knits together their choirs, what underpins their collaborative innovation processes, and what drives their diplomacy.

Digital public diplomacy strategies for Sweden

The ideas brainstormed at the workshop on the future of Sweden’s digital public diplomacy are still far too tentative to sketch out, but it’s worth musing on some general strategies for Sweden that a network-centric world implies.

In a collaborative power dynamic, the network quickly disseminates best practices for the good of all, with a concomitant boost to the reputation of the originator. In this context, gaining reputation is akin to “moving to the center” of a network, improving both the quantity and quality of connections. This should be Sweden’s aim in its digital public diplomacy.

Sweden has plenty of best practices to share with the world — and the world has plenty to share with Sweden. For Sweden’s foreign-facing government agencies, the challenge becomes ever tighter integration and interaction with the networks along which these ideas travel.

Where networks are scarce, it is in Sweden’s interest to build up their physical capacity. As a nation-state, Sweden has considerable resources available (when compared to NGOs and civil society actors) to build the foundations for networks that can grow autonomously around prioritized issues. Both YLVP and She Entrepreneurs, a network connecting young female social entrepreneurs in the Middle East with mentors in Sweden, are great examples of such capacity building.

Finally, even open networks need to be trusted before they can be used to build trust. For digital networks, this means they need to be safe and secure for users, regardless of where they live. Power attracts attention, and the collaborative power residing in a network is no different. Digital natives cannot afford to be digital naïfs about the fact that censorship, surveillance and cyber-attacks constitute a real systemic risk to networks. The Swedish state should not be responsible for securing such networks but it can work with others do get the job done. Fortunately, Sweden has recourse to some great hacktivist talent.

So: Build networks, secure networks, engage networks. These are three useful motifs around which Sweden can structure its future digital public diplomacy efforts. The devil is of course in the details.

Europe arrives? Berlin’s Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society launches

Currently, the leading academic institutions researching “Internet and Society” are Anglo-Saxon affairs, notably at Harvard, Stanford, Yale, Toronto and Oxford. This has prompted the question: Where is mainland Europe’s counterweight in this fast-growing and important area of study?

Perhaps language is a barrier to the wider exposure of continental research, or maybe a clash of academic cultures is impeding cross-fertilization. Public universities in Europe might also be facing funding challenges that conspire against the fast founding of topical new research centers. Smaller places do exist, such as in Turin, and universities might have a faculty or lab that innovates in its niche. Whatever the reason, these efforts have not yet managed to steer the global debate regarding Internet and society, or match the impact of results-oriented projects such as the OpenNet Initiative.

The lack of European institutions with the caliber of a Berkman Center has been keenly felt, however, and so several initiatives are in the works. In Lund, plans are afoot to set up the Lund University Internet Institute (LUII). And in Berlin, Humboldt University’s Google-funded Alexander von Humboldt Institut für Internet und Gesellschaft (HIIG) has just launched, with a symposium to mark the occasion.

I attended this First Berlin Symposium on Internet and Society (#BSIS11) on Oct 26-28. Below are some notes on the event and some wider thoughts on its context.

In a sign of how en vogue the topic is, that week there were at least two more conferences in the same vein — the corporate-sponsored Silicon Valley Human Rights Conference (#rightscon) in San Francisco, and the Swedish government-funded conference on Internet and democratic change (#net4change) in Stockholm. One speaker, Rebecca MacKinnon, even managed to headline two of them, in San Francisco and Berlin.

The audiences at these conferences varied. In San Francisco we saw civil society and corporations getting together for an “outcome-oriented” event aimed at using ICT to do good. Stockholm had NGOs, entrepreneurs and net activists comparing experiences in the trenches and building networks. Both conferences had strong representations from the Arab world.

In Berlin, in contrast, the audience was resolutely academic, first-world, and with a preponderance of competence in the social sciences and law. The focus, too, was not on outcomes or actions but on discussing research questions that the fledgling institute might pursue. These are not criticisms, but they do point to a big divergence in motivation: Participants in Stockholm and San Francisco approached the issues from a user perspective, and tended to place themselves in opposition to the perceived paternalism of state actors. The default stance to regulatory initiatives among this group is mistrust. They tend to see regulation as a necessary evil.

Meanwhile, in Berlin, regulation — whether national or even international — was far more openly mooted as a desirable means to protect society from the ill effects of Internet-mediated change.

This contrast of approaches was most visible in the two keynote speeches. Rebecca MacKinnon was clearly an emissary of the regulation skeptics, and her talk was a well-argued and illustrated cautionary tale of unintended consequences and slippery slopes. She drew a direct comparison between Chinese corporate self-censorship and the West’s regulatory tack towards intermediary liability, with its attendant chilling effects.

Phillip Mueller‘s keynote on open statecraft, by contrast, was a far more academic and abstract treatment by a public policy professor. Machiavelli and Martin Luther were invoked (the latter as a proto-blogger), governance and social production models were contrasted, and differences were tweaked between one-to-many, many-to-many and few-to-few media.

The overall effect was that of a public policy professional sizing up the Internet. MacKinnon, on the other hand, came across as a digital native sizing up public policy. It’s a subtle distinction, and both perspectives are valuable, but as an Internet user, I find myself hoping HIIG’s ethos doesn’t default solely to Mueller’s approach.

Privacy: How might a digital native’s approach to research questions differ? I think it could affect some of the underlying assumptions. An example: In the workshop on “Internet Legislation and Regulation through the Eyes of Constitution” [sic] there was some talk about how constitutional rights such as privacy or free expression must continue to be robustly protected as the Internet comes to permeate society. This is true, though privacy and free expression often stand in opposition to one another, and so a balance of rights needs to be found that corresponds to a society’s needs and expectations — that’s the job of judges and legislators.

What’s evident is that over time, the march of technology will naturally favor some rights at the expense of others; in a world of cheap camera phones, Facebook and Twitter, our private sphere shrinks and smudges into various shades of semi-privacy, in part because our friends and colleagues have ever more powerful tools to freely express themselves about us.

A conventional policy reaction to this technology-mediated erosion of privacy might be to legislate ever stronger protection in a valiant attempt to freeze privacy norms at pre-Internet levels. A digital native’s policy reaction would be to embrace this shifting natural balance, and focus instead on enabling emerging norms for privacy management. Privacy is a mutable social norm, and it always has been, waxing and waning over the centuries. The new norms need to accommodate this dynamism.

The Berkman Center’s Executive Director Urs Gasser, in his contribution to the workshop, made room for the digitally native response. He pointed out that policy responses to the Internet could range from enacting wholly new legislation, to the subsumption of old legislation into a new more relevant legal framework, to doing nothing at all. He warned against legislating too soon: Knee-jerk legislation produced the US Patriot Act, after all. And finally, he betrayed an engineer’s sensibility, suggesting that the online effects of legislation should be measurable, enabling feedback loops that would allow the legal system to learn.

Public Domain: In the workshop “The Digital Public Domain Between Regulation And Innovation” there was a similar recognition that traditional methods of rewarding creativity through intellectual property protection are being made obsolete by technological innovation. To digital natives, the concept of “buying” digital content is an increasingly anachronistic metaphor, and yet regulatory activity has focused almost exclusively on perpetuating the notion of property, and hence stealing, into the digital age. Meanwhile, technology strongly favors the duplication of digital content with impunity.

A digitally native policy approach, in contrast, appreciates that social practices are shifting just as much in the creation of content as in its consumption. The old lone-author notion of content creation that traditional IP law has catered to is now just one extreme in a spectrum of increasingly collaborative and reiterative creative processes. This new reality has triggered a Cambrian explosion of more apt content use schemes: Licensing models such as the Creative Commons and GNU GPL, voluntary micropayment reward schemes such as Flattr and Readability, and flat-rate consumption schemes such as Spotify and Netflix.

All of these innovations are blurring the boundaries of the public domain, and constitute a de facto assault on IP orthodoxy. What they also share is a bottom-up, evolutionary genesis, born of disparate social movements and entrepreneurial initiatives, as opposed to a more deliberate, top-down approach championed by University of Haifa Dean Niva Elkin-Koren, who was present at the workshop. Her wish was that “we need to start from the purpose of the public domain and then derive norms.”

I certainly approve of this sentiment, though I suspect such a project would crucially lack broader support among copyright incumbents. In the meantime, the best we can do is have these emerging use schemes reshape the public domain in an ad hoc way, with the net effect so far being positive. Elkin-Koren has a point, however, which she has long argued: The evolution of this process does not guarantee a positive outcome.

So, even among digital natives, the tactics may differ while the strategies align. Fortunately, these two approaches are not mutually exclusive. And perhaps the specter of a Darwinian evolution of content use norms will push the incumbents towards a system that more holistically looks at how to maximize creativity with a minimum of constraints — something which ACTA demonstrably fails to do.

With all the great people at the workshops and on the sidelines, HIIG looks set to bring a strong European voice to the “Internet and Society” debate. And with MacKinnon, Gasser and Elkin-Koren contributing to the launch symposium, here’s hoping that voice also embraces the digitally native view.