To Cerf, With Love
by Neil Turkewitz
Last week, Vint Cerf, one of the fathers of the internet (sorry, “Internet”) and chief evangelist of arguably the most powerful and mysterious company in the world (Alphabet/Google), published a piece in Wired entitled: “In 2018, we will tackle the internet’s dark side.”
Given that Cerf is essentially Willy Wonka if he were in the information business, including the fact that Mountain View may well be home to an army of Oompa Loompa coders and hackers, I immediately took notice — ready to devour the latest thinking of the man guiding us to, or from, the Singularity. After all, he was about to own up to the irrational exuberance surrounding the development of technology without having considered how it might be used, and how an economy based on achieving optimization of attention would end up distorting public discourse and the economy in ways that were, how can I say this politely…less than optimal in advancing the stated core goals that Cerf and the other fathers of the Internet had espoused. The very title promised a less evangelical approach to internet governance — one that recognized that there was a “dark side” of the internet. And stated so boldly. 2018 as the year when the dark forces undermining the potential of the internet were defeated.
Now truth be told, even the title scared me a little. The internet doesn’t really have a “dark side” so much as the entire architecture and core operating assumptions empower conduct without regard to the effects thereof, both at the platform and individual user level. And that the advertising model at the heart of internet platforms encourages activity without regard to the nature of the content. Chaos is not a defect of the system — it is the environment from which monetization of conduct is based. You could look at it as the default condition of the Internet created by Cerf and his fellow fathers.
Cerf and the early Internet pioneers were clearly true believers in the capacity of the internet to advance the state of man (which did include women, albeit not on the “father of the Internet” side), and Cerf’s thinking and public statements have often been incisive and brave. His NY Times piece from January of 2012, “Internet Access is Not a Human Right,” was brilliant, and written long before the current wave of challenging tech orthodoxy and control. He wrote: “Yet all these philosophical arguments overlook a more fundamental issue: the responsibility of technology creators themselves to support human and civil rights. The Internet has introduced an enormously accessible and egalitarian platform for creating, sharing and obtaining information on a global scale. As a result, we have new ways to allow people to exercise their human and civil rights…Improving the Internet is just one means, albeit an important one, by which to improve the human condition. It must be done with an appreciation for the civil and human rights that deserve protection — without pretending that access itself is such a right.”
Just one month after the publication of Cerf’s piece, Assistant Secretary of State, Michael Posner, echoed his words. In his keynote address at the 2012 State of the Net conference, Secretary Posner said: “So yes, the Internet is empowering. Yet we agree with Vincent Cerf, who wrote in an op-ed piece last month that Internet access is not itself a human right. Freedom of expression, assembly and association are human rights. Technology can enable those rights. Technology is not a substitute for political organizing or advocacy or persuasion….Let me state for the record that international law applies to online behavior. Full stop. We do not need to reinvent international human rights law, or our enduring principles, to account for the Internet. No deed is more evil — or more noble — when it is committed online rather than offline. You can’t sell child pornography in Farragut Square or Tahrir Square, and you can’t sell it on the Internet, either. You can’t break into a theater and steal the movie reels and you can’t steal movies online, either. You can’t beat up and gag a peaceful protestor and you can’t jail her for a blog post criticizing a government policy, either.”
This is fairly astonishing, no? Six years ago, the chief evangelist of the most powerful internet company in the world, and the US government, the government most directly involved in steering the governance of the internet, each reflected an understanding of the social context of internet communications and the concomitant obligation to avoid internet idolatry premised on some theory of tech exceptionalism. The medium is not the message — the message is the message, and the value of internet platforms turns on what and who it empowers. Six years ago, Cerf understood that tech companies could not hide behind the supposed neutrality of their services to defend their role in enabling bad conduct. In 2012, he wrote: “As we seek to advance the state of the art in technology and its use in society, we must be conscious of our civil responsibilities in addition to our engineering expertise.”
Alas, we have witnessed little progress in hardwiring “civil responsibilities” into the normative structure of Internet governance, and Cerf’s own company, and many groups funded by them, have instead pursued legal and political strategies designed to insulate themselves from responsibility for the conduct which they enable, and from which they profit. The world, and Silicon Valley in particular, has failed to heed Cerf’s warning about the dangers of glorifying the Internet per se, and people still talk about “Internet Freedom” as if that were a thing separate and apart from the kinds of freedoms that we cherish without regard to modalities. An Internet Freedom which, unlike traditional freedoms, is decontextualized and removed from responsibility and restraint. Freedom for wolves.
All of which bring us to 2017 and tech’s year of reckoning. When the shiny promise of the potential of the internet to improve the human condition was drowned out by the constant, noisy and ugly news of internet-based harmful conduct. Where the utopian vision of the Internet pioneers was dashed upon the sharp rocks of reality. So how would Cerf follow up on his 2012 call for justice and responsibility? How exactly would he “tackle the dark side?”
Alas, Cerf disappoints. He writes: “The web’s powerful enabling capacity has introduced a range of social disruptions that some countries regard as harmful. There is pressure on the providers of the enabling platforms to filter some of the content, either in accordance with user wishes, for business reasons or because laws are enacted that require redaction.” Some countries regard as harmful? Talk about the understatement of the year. Massive leaks of sensitive financial and other personal data, sex trafficking, interference in elections, an explosion in hate speech, continuing theft of intellectual property jeopardizing the careers of creatives for whom the internet was supposed to be empowering. Cerf thinks that “some governments” regard this conduct as harmful? And the use of the word “filtering” is also very disappointing. It is an inflammatory word that is designed to create an emotional rather than a thoughtful response. When you are in the communications/information business, making decisions about what you as a service/platform will enable is not filtering. It is the exercise of judgment about your own conduct.
And then there’s this: “The internet has become a mirror of our global societies…Some people are not happy with what they see in this mirror, but make the mistake of thinking that correcting the mirror will fix the problems reflected therein.” The “internet,” now conveniently anthropomorphized, is described as a passive mirror merely reflecting, but not contributing to, the state of present discourse. Is there anyone that truly believes that? Please, please, please, bring back 2012 Cerf. We need him.