Friday, June 21, 2013

Running Afoul of a Failure to Understand Governance

The other day one of my skims of RSS headlines turned up the question of whether or not the Internet needs a "bill of rights." At the time I decided that I had too many other things on my plate to open that can of worms again; and, as a result, I lost the link. Unfortunately, the idea stuck with me.

I suppose I tried to avoid the article because it was yet another reminder of how little so many vocal members of the Internet community know about governance. For example, I suspect there is a general failure to address the concept of just what the Bill of Rights was and, for that matter, why it was an amendment to the Constitution rather than part of the original document. Others understand this far better than I do, but my guess is that the framing of the Constitution envisaged a document of government as a system of components with a clear definition of what those components (now known as the legislative, executive, and judiciary branches) did. In other words, it was a document about how government worked that was conceived independent of any thoughts about the citizens of that government.

The authors of the Constitution knew better than to tell citizens what to do. However, they did see a need to identify certain rights that one had, simply by virtue of being a citizen. So it was that the first ten amendments were written as a sort of unified package.

I would like to suggest that such rights can only be postulated within the framework of an existing system of governance. To say that the Internet needs a "bill of rights" amounts to saying "We need to drive this car to Boston" without first checking whether or not the car has an engine. Before we can address matters of rights, we have to identify the framework of government within which those rights may be exercised. Unfortunately, the Internet emerged as an anarchy; and, for quite some time, its "citizens," so to speak, either tolerated or relished its anarchic status. Unfortunately, anarchy is a bit like entropy. If the laws of thermodynamics prohibit a Maxwell's demon that can create order out of chaos, then the laws of social dynamics tend to preclude the possibility that those living with anarchy can establish a system of governance. It may still be possible; but the Internet lacks both the social culture and the intellectual foundations without which those who wrote the Constitution (which, lest we forget, was a "second try") could not have done there job.

It would be nice if those calling for an "Internet bill of rights" knew what they were talking about, but I suspect that is asking too much these days!

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