Securing the internet’s future

The oracle online: Mike Godwin, director of innovation policy and general counsel at Washington DC’s R Street Institute, noticed and codified a behavioural pattern among social media users.

The oracle online: Mike Godwin, director of innovation policy and general counsel at Washington DC’s R Street Institute, noticed and codified a behavioural pattern among social media users.   -  R Street Institute

Mike Godwin, who proposed the eponymous law about online discussion threads, speaks about net neutrality, differential pricing and why no government is likely to oppose stricter surveillance measures

For gravity, there’s Newton’s law, for internet discussion threads, there’s Godwin’s law. Twenty-five years ago, a law student trawling through cyberspace noticed a recurring pattern: at some point in an online discussion, someone would invariably invoke Hitler or the Nazis. The observation led to an act of ‘mimetic engineering’ — rifling through discussion boards, pointing this out, and promptly naming the law after him.

Godwin’s law states: As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one — that is, the likelier this becomes.

Mike Godwin, 59, a portly, white-haired gent in Harry Potter glasses is best known for this aphoristic piece of wisdom. “The purpose,” he says, “was to make the people who engaged in frivolous comparisons of atrocities seem like they weren’t thinking.”

It is generally understood that when one of the arguers is falling back on the Nazis as rhetorical shorthand, that person is starting to lose the argument.

“It certainly means one of the arguers has gone to a higher or lower level,” he said.

Godwin was in India in February as part of a series of talks organised through the Centre for Internet and Society on net neutrality.

In early February, at the Mumbai University’s civics and politics department, he was on a panel with three others at a discussion that occasionally took an agitated tone.

“[The debate] hasn’t become heated in every country to the same degree,” he said. “In India it has.” The public discussion has been polarised, with activists vehemently opposing, among other things, ‘Free Basics’ — a Facebook offering. On February 8, the telecom regulator ruled against differential pricing, debarring telecom operators from offering slices of the internet at different prices.

Godwin doesn’t see net neutrality and differential pricing as mutually exclusive. “I think some forms [of differential pricing] are potentially good and some forms are potentially bad,” he said. “And the regulator has to look closely and make a determination about the harms or benefits.”

Godwin has worked with the Wikimedia Foundation, which offered Wikipedia Zero for free in some countries through specific providers, as a gateway to Wikipedia. But he isn’t trying to convince you one way or the other.

“[There is] an idea that there was something valuable about carriers [service providers] being neutral,” he said. “And I still think that that’s true… But the thing that changed was this: with Wikipedia, I realised it doesn’t matter if you have neutrality if nobody can afford it. Neutrality hasn’t served the people who can’t afford to pay to have the wires built up to their provinces.”

This then boils down to the fundamental question: how do we create a world that gets people connected? “It may involve cross-subsidies of various sorts, and all of these things historically have invited some degree of government regulation,” said Godwin. “The question is less ‘do you regulate or not regulate’, the question is ‘do you do it right’.”

But does Free Basics mean anything to a developing country which needs real basics first: water, sanitation, shelter? Godwin doesn’t buy into the premise that the internet is a luxury that comes after all these things.

“I think that [idea] is wrong,” he said. “Because when people can share information or resources about where the water is or what good health practices are or how to properly cultivate a crop, they help everyone else. And the impulse to help and share what they know is strong.”

Godwin’s first law has now been well entrenched in popular culture. But wait, he has a second one. This one goes: Surveillance is the crack cocaine of governments.

“Almost all governments want to engage in surveillance,” he said. “Some governments have disagreements with other governments over their surveillance but rarely will we see them categorically refuse to surveil.”

And yet, he says, our outrage over this is driven by an “antiquated notion of privacy” that the content of our emails or conversations should be free from prying eyes. “In the rest of the century and future centuries people will look back at this idea and laugh: that people thought that content was the important thing,” he said. Someone reading your mail isn’t the only possible violation, but whether they are accessing the whole ecosystem of your communication. “The metadata can give away the whole store,” he said. “The metadata can be more revealing. Who are you talking to, at what time of day, for how long, how big is the message? These are all things that can matter.”

That’s not the only thing that’s changed. The internet has, since its early days, become a more charged, more violent place, where poison, bile and abuse fly thick and fast.

“The level of hatefulness directed towards women online is particularly bad,” he continued, “It is a huge cross-cultural problem.”

The other enduring problem is how do you balance free speech rights while curtailing hate speech? “If there were an easy answer I’d tell you what it is,” said Godwin.

Still, banning or blocking sites, as the Indian government has been in the past eager to do, is hardly a solution. “I won’t say there is never an argument for it,” said Godwin, pausing a beat, “I will say that I have never heard one that was any good.”

Bhavya Dore is a Mumbai-based journalist

Published on March 25, 2016

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