The Internet as Enlightenment 2.0

The Internet is proof that John Locke was right and Thomas Hobbes was wrong, says Bertrand de La Chapelle, program director of the International Diplomatic Academy in Paris and a board member of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers.

The Internet's relatively ungoverned space hasn't given way to a nasty and brutish "war of all against all" as the dour political philosopher Hobbes might have guessed. Rather, for the most part, it has brought together naturally social humans who have policed themselves and each other through a complex mesh of experience raters, Facebook group administrators and volunteer editors, he said.

"The reality is that when you give them the tools, people are a pretty cooperative bunch," de La Chapelle said. "Things like Wikipedia, even the rules of dispute resolution on eBay and Tweeting recommendations show the incredible natural tendency of people to get along much better than you'd expect."

Based on the available evidence, De la Chapelle said, he's willing to make the "bold bet" that Internet governance -- or the lack of it -- can and will remain largely an ad hoc process in which nations, corporations, civil society groups and ordinary citizens all have their say.

"That's as bold a bet as was made in the 18th and 19th century when universal suffrage was introduced," he said.

De la Chapelle was speaking at an event titled "Who Should Govern the Internet?" sponsored by Georgetown University's Institute for the Study of Diplomacy.

The Internet's development does raise new issues where rights are concerned -- a favorite topic of both Enlightenment thinkers -- most notably whether freedom of expression has gone from being a negative right, defined by a government's lack of intrusion into public discourse, to a positive right defined by access to the Internet as a publishing platform, American University Professor Laura DeNardis said.

"It may no longer make sense to separate economic liberties from expressive liberties," she said, "because, now, having certain technological tools is essential to having freedom of expression."

There is some "soft law" on how the Internet should be run, said Fiona Alexander, an associate administrator at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, a Commerce Department division that handles Internet governance issues.

That includes voluntary standards set by international corporations, World Trade Organization rules and principles outlined by international partnerships such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the Group of 8 leading economic nations, she said

"I don't think it's going to be this Law of the Sea approach," Alexander said, referencing the 200-page, three-part, two decades in the making convention governing territorial sea boundaries and other maritime issues.

"And that's what we've been advocating," she said. "This idea that you would develop rules and laws for technology that's always changing means you would always be catching up."