Web Politics Demand Web Pros Attention

Opinion: Complex and critical infrastructure invites heavy-handed regulation.

I felt an odd chill up my spine when I read last weeks comments from the U.S. Department of State on the subject of Internet governance. "These systems and networks are subject to threats and vulnerabilities from multiple sources and different geographic locations; security requires a concerted preventive effort by all stakeholders, appropriate to their roles. National action and international collaboration across a range of legal, enforcement, administrative and technical areas are required to build a global culture of cybersecurity," read in part that position paper from the State Departments Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs.

I fully agree with the general principles thereby declared, and also with the need for international collaboration to those ends. At the same time, though, I felt a revived concern about the impact on IT professionals that results from non-technical diplomats, regulators and law enforcement agencies attempting to define the rules by which coders and content creators will play.

Two literary references came to mind. The first was non-fiction: In Tracy Kidders 1981 narrative, "The Soul of a New Machine," he described the moral dilemma of a computer engineer troubled by military applications of his work. "A dissenter," Kidder observed, "could indeed refuse to do work that might end up in the hands of soldiers: that would mean, in effect, not being a computer engineer."

Once a forum for unregulated expression and technical experimentation, the versatile and general-purpose Net is likewise being cast in a role as critical infrastructure for which it was not really designed: One has to wonder if Web developers will wind up being entrained, so to speak, in the drafting of the Net, made responsible either in effect or possibly in law for protecting something that cant effectively protect itself.

That disquieting image -- what one might call the paramilitarization of the Internets technologists -- echoes another literary source, Robert Heinleins 65-year-old story "The Roads Must Roll." Considering that the story was written before World War II -- let alone 9/11/01 -- its impressive to see how clearly Heinlein envisioned a military-industrial fusion of transportation infrastructure.

The complexity and interdependency of Heinleins rolling roads, compared to the simplicity of pavement, remind me of the difference between the so-called "Web 2.0" platform of cooperating code versus whats now becoming the legacy Web of decentralized, content-neutral linkage and delivery. Plenty of governments have had problems with the combination of the apparent ungovernability of the Web on the one hand, and the perceived U.S. dominance of what few mechanisms of governance the Web has had at all. As the Web becomes a more complex environment, and as ordinary citizens and governments simultaneously become more dependent on its predictable behavior, technologists will likely find themselves less free to experiment -- and thus less free to innovate -- while also being held to a higher standard of responsibility for what they create and how it behaves.

As we embrace and explore new protocols and tools for building more sophisticated Net-based applications, wed be naïve to think that we can do so without considering the politics -- for that matter, the geopolitics -- of what we create and of the environment that it yields. One might almost call this the difference between a coder and a software professional. We need to establish a more professional role in public debate of Net governance, or risk becoming mere trolls in the basement of the Web that runs the world.

Send your thoughts on software professionalism to peter_coffee@ziffdavis.com


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