Fewer, if not few, people have much trust in the banking and financial system after recent experiences of inter-bank rate rigging scandals, the unscrupulous selling of financial duds to an unsuspecting public, dodgy investments in derivatives, excessive bonus payments even as the banks ran up huge losses and received hand-outs of public money, etc. Fewer, if not few, people have much trust that their data and personal information is safe on the Internet after the egregious activities of state security agencies everywhere, but highlighted by the exposure of the National Security Agency (NSA) in particular. Cybercrimes merely add to the conviction that nowadays nothing is private and nothing is safe. And yet we still rely on banks and we still use the Internet more than ever. So is the issue of trust over-done?
Maybe trust is not quite the right word. To be effective, a lack of trust would require more trustworthy alternatives to be available, so people could switch away from the least trusted providers. In general, alternatives are not available. We can choose between banks and between social networks and IT providers, but how to differentiate? What does the ordinary citizen actually know about how a particular bank is run or the privacy policies and protections exercised by different Internet companies? ‘Very little’ is the answer. Cynicism rather than trust is perhaps the key word. No one believes anymore in the idea that a company, any company, will ‘do no evil’. And no one any longer believes that it’s all down to a few bad apples when the whole damn orchard seems to be infected. More thoughtful citizens will simply see it as the “invisible hand of the market”, you know the one, the hand that picks your pocket, or your ID.
A cynic, as Oscar Wilde defined, is someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. Well citizens who are cynical of banks and Internet companies are not cynics in that sense. Most citizens do value privacy and security and much of the outrage is precisely due to the falling short of ethical standards by the companies and the political apparatus involved. More worrying however, are the recent efforts by authoritarian states to exercise direct control over the Internet, although most citizens remain blissfully ignorant of it. These states argue national sovereignty issues at stake, things like country code top-level domain (ccTLD) and second-tier domain names and control of the networks over which the data travels. Their chosen vehicle is the ITU, a UN-affiliated agency.
In the immediate post-WWII years, the UN was a widely welcomed and trusted body, opening up a vision of a new beginning for rule-based international relations. Today, among the most cynical are those with knowledge of the UN and its workings, the political deal-making and stasis, the gaps between promises and delivery. Again, there is no apparent alternative, except for a retreat into pre-1939-style “national interests.” But now ICANN is seeking an alternative for the Internet. Currently ICANN operates with a license from the US Department of Commerce and this US-centric approach has come under growing strain. The revelations of Edward Snowden have just added fuel to the fire. Authoritarian states are pushing for the ITU to extend its mandate in what is termed a “multilateral” approach. ICANN is proposing, with US-backing, to create a “multi-stakeholder” approach in which states would have neither a veto nor a majority. A third position, held mostly but not exclusively in the US by Republicans, is to maintain the status quo, again in the name of “national interest” – although their number seems to include ex-President Bill Clinton more on the basis of its “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.”
Who can be trusted with the Internet? If the answer is “no-one” then it would appear that a system in which “no-one” has overall power is both a recipe for generating “organized confusion” and just maybe for safeguarding against dominance by any authoritarian states. It’s the devil we don’t know. But will it be sufficient to minimize the influence of such states and avoid the “Balkanization” of the Internet? The organized confusion scenario would seem to gel most closely to the way in which the Internet has developed up to now, offering opportunity for new entries, start-ups, experimentation and innovation. The “do-it-yourself” economy, which would have included Bill Gates and Steve Jobs in their early days, and now sees the emergence of the “sharing economy” such as AirBnB, Uber, etc., is vibrant. But even so that won’t stop the Internet being dominated by big players because at the end of the day it’s a commercial proposition, whatever the driving idealism. Trust me on that!