Should we regulate the web?

01 December 2014

Interview with

Johnathan Nightingale, Mozilla

For better or for worse, the internet is clearly a powerful resource. So should it Internetbe regulated? At the moment there are really no international laws in place to govern how this global entity operates and how people should behave there. And, somewhat surprisingly, this is actually regarded as one of the most powerful virtues of the Internet.

But where is the web heading, and can it remain unregulated and free forever? Chris Smith spoke to Jonathan Nightingale, Vice President of the not-for-profit web-browser Firefox...

Jonathan -  My first interactions with the web and with the internet more broadly were email, text based web pages and the idea that you could gather this information that you could communicate with people, that was very promising.  But the explosion of information that's moved online, the idea that really, everything that we know, most creative endeavour of humanity ends up there one way or another.  You would've been laughed out of the room.  That's such an ambitious thing to have predicted.

Chris -  It's not without problems though isn't it because we see increasingly countries which have laws that have stood for hundreds of years and worked incredibly well and now, we've got this new phenomenon of communication and people are trying to apply these laws that they understood.  They were abiding by them, everything seemed fine.  They don't work in the online space though.

Jonathan -  What the internet has really done is two things that we haven't had to deal with before.  I think the first one is: it's introduced problems of scale.  If you had malice in your heart, you were bounded by how many people you could reach and how many of them would fall for your con or leave their doors unlocked.  These days, you can reach a much broader audience much more rapidly.  The technology facilitates that.  That's problematic and as you say, laws are going to have to catch up with it.  And then I would say, the second challenge, it is new, certainly, the scope of it is new with the internet is, the challenge of jurisdiction that it can be very difficult to prosecute people who violate your laws because your laws are different than my loss here in Canada.  Even if the UK and Canada can shake hands and agree on some common regimes, it's going to be very hard to do that 200 times.

Chris -  Do you think then inevitably, based on what you've just said, that we're looking at a future where the internet will be regulated?

Jonathan -  I would have great hope for regulatory organisations, legislative bodies, finding ways to serve that common, to steward it, to put in regulations around how it must remain open.  It must remain unmoderated and it should be possible for anybody to come in and to play and to imagine and to create.  I would hate for our fear of what a bad actor could do in that commons to cause us to close the commons altogether. What the web needs, you're absolutely right, we need to see evolution.  We need to see our notion of how we police, how we patrol, how we protect people.  That needs to evolve very rapidly, just as every part of our society is evolving as the web reaches more and more of it.  But I think the central notion of a free and open web where people can communicate and innovate without gatekeepers, that's a powerful thing.

Chris -  But how free and open do you think it really is because we know that one company who own the search rights to a very large amount of data dominate the internet and yes, they've been instrumental in driving evolution, they've driven a huge amount of change and it's been very exciting, a very exciting journey, but they are nonetheless a very powerful player.

Jonathan -  I think there are two threats.  One threat to the data of the web is exactly what you've named that we may have legislative action taken.  Another threat is that any time you get a resource in a commons that's this valuable, somebody is going to get it into their head that they want to carve off a piece of it.  And you're absolutely seeing that there are a couple of organisations right now who are trying as much as they can to pull all of your online life into their garden.  It's a beautiful garden and everything works nicely together.  As long as you stay in the garden, you don't have to think too much about it, but it's a garden with walls and by the way, the organisations that are doing it today are not the first to try it.  Ten years ago, when we released the first version of Firefox, it was into a web that was 96% internet explorer because a company had successfully built a walled garden around the web and said, "If you want to get on the web, you're going to do it through our product."  We released Firefox because we felt that choice was critical and hundreds of millions of people voted with us.  I think no one organisation is ever going to be able to call the shots on everything that humanity might do with something as powerful as the internet.

Chris -  Do you think nonetheless, it will enable people to remain completely free and unbiased because if you are a shop and you bought lots of other shops, the monopolies commission would be after you eventually if you owned the high street?  But that doesn't seem to be stopping people on the internet, does it?  So, do you think we need something in place to at least make sure that we don't end up slaves to one particular online entity?

Jonathan -  There's an element of this that points to a debate that you certainly see in many parts of the world around net neutrality.  It's very much an undecided question right now.  As far as we're concerned in Mozilla, as far as I'm concerned as an individual, I want to see a neutral internet.  I don't want some people to be able to pay for fast lanes and other people to be inevitably dumped into slow lanes.  I do think that that will hinder the ability of new entrants to come up and surprise us and displace old titans.  I think that's very important and that's an example of a legislative fight that's going to have to happen all over the world.  Probably, over the next 20 years, you're going to see different nations try different conclusions about what happens to the internet within their borders.  But you're absolutely right, that some kind of affirmative statement that we want the internet to be a commons, that we want it to be a neutral ground is important.

Chris -  Where do you see this going next?  I mean, we've seen huge change.  We've seen this thing take over our lives and become part of almost every aspect of our lives.  Where is this going to go next?  What do you see on that horizon or even over the horizon 20 years hence?

Jonathan -  Twenty years is a long time.  I think the takeover you're describing is absolutely something that I feel.  It's not something that the rest of the world feels yet, and so, one thing that's going to characterise the next 20 years is bringing that connectivity to everyone.  It's not that you just started using the computer instead of your travel agent or phoning friends or something.  As a technology fetish, you did it because it solved problems in a new way, gave you more choice.  It brought options that you weren't aware of before.  Those advantages have not been conferred on everyone yet.  So, that's one piece that I think we're going to see a great deal of continuing change around.  And then I want to come back to this idea that over the next 20 years, we actually have a couple of possible futures.  My fear is that whether it's by well-intension legislatures or by quarterly earnings-seeking organisations that we will see this open interplay chipped away at, that people will try to carve things out, that someone will say, "here's some grand, new technology, but you can only get it on our terms."  That's not a struggle that goes away anytime soon, but if I can be a little more aspirational, the future I'd like to see, the future that 20 years ago, I would've been afraid to point to, is that it continues.

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