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Why Did Vint Cerf Say That?

January 5th, 2012 by | 2 Comments »

Vint Cerf, one of the primary designers of TCP/IP and a man who’s among the “fathers of the Internet” has an Op-Ed in today’s New York Times arguing that Internet access is not a “human right.” This has a lot of people buzzing because it’s counter-intuitive. Why would someone whose entire career has been devoted to the Internet suddenly pop up in the middle of the international discussion about its legal status on the “no big deal” side?

I think there are two issues in play here. On the one hand, if Internet access is a “human right” then it naturally falls on government to protect this right, which means greater political scrutiny of the Internet. All the elements of the Internet infrastructure and ecology would come under tighter government control, the better to ensure that no one’s rights are abridged. If you’re in the Internet business in any way – broadband, search, advertising, content, services – your business would be subject to ongoing scrutiny in a human rights regime. So this is troublesome for many companies, as we see every time Congress or the FCC proposes to apply rules to some element of the Internet that had been unregulated.

Obviously, Cerf’s employer is one of the companies in the regulatory cross-hairs at the moment, and with its acquisition of Motorola Mobility and continued dominance of search and advertising, we shouldn’t expect this to change. It’s in the corporate interest for the broadband and mobile Internet to muddle along as best it can without too much help from the taxpayers unless that help comes with no strings attached, or so many people believe (especially in Silicon Valley where free markets are the de facto religion.)

There’s another interesting element to Cerf’s plea as well, in the form of an exhortation to engineers to put aside their technical roles and engage in Internet policy issues as advocates of human rights:

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…

It is engineers — and our professional associations and standards-setting bodies like the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers — that create and maintain these new capabilities. 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.

Although it reads like a platitude, this statement is actually quite troubling. There is a long-running debate over the role of scientists in public policy that’s been generally resolved along expert witness lines. Policy makers (that means Congress and other legislators) have the responsibility for shaping science and technology policy, as they do in other areas. But tech policy is unique to the extent that policy makers require technologists to explain technical systems, dynamics, and outcomes to them, the better to inform the final result.

In order for this system to work, engineers need to play it straight and answer the questions put to them without editorializing. If a policy maker wants an interpretation of the data on climate change, the state of the fisheries, the limits of Moore’s Law, or the nature of cerebro-silicon interfaces, he or she deserves an objective answer, regardless of the consequences. Their function is to inform policy makers of the consequences, not to tip the debate according to their political points of view. This includes advising policy makers of the questions they should be asking when they’re not asking the ones that will best illuminate the entire problem space.

Cerf argues that technologists should no longer play this role, and should instead approach policy makers as advocates for a particular policy position: “protecting human and civil rights.” This argument is incredibly dangerous because it cuts off the only source of objective technical learning that policy makers have and puts in its place one more interest group with an axe to grind.

Technologists should reject Cerf’s post-modern policy prescription. Science and technology have a unique role to play in public policy, but not the dominant role. When technologists are invited to advise policy makers because of their expertise, they shouldn’t abuse the privilege (or dodge the responsibility) by offering political viewpoints. The scientist’s job is to provide straight answers.

There is no universal consensus about human rights and civil rights for engineers to advocate; everyone determines their position on these questions according to personal values and individual analysis, so the goal is not really achievable. And even it there were a universal consensus, there would still be discord about which policies are most efficient towards meeting the common aim.

Cerf’s point of view echoes the “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace” fantasy we just discussed. If engineers can successfully bend public policy around the Internet, networks generally, and computing even more generally into the mold of our personal politics we come a large step closer to the ideal of a world managed by supposedly “neutral” machines that are programmed by people who are anything but neutral. When the external controls on a social system are removed, the bullies take over, and techno politics is simply a way for people operating the levers of power to hide their tracks and escape any form of accountability.

Having grown up in the ’60s when utopian ideals were in fashion and revolution was a parlor game, I’m familiar with techno-politics, so I’m quite comfortable rejecting this charge (once again.)  Technologists are part of the policy process, and we do best to stick to our role and play it well, even it that means we sometimes have to say things that aren’t fashionable.

At the risk of being unkind, I also have to point out that Cerf hasn’t done any real engineering for 30 years, so it’s a lot easier for him to abandon the technical role than it is for working technologists.

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Reader Comments

  1. Unfortunately missing the point. Internet access is not one of the defined UN Declaration of Human Rights. One does not take away or add to human rights as a result of engineering or technology.

    It is highly critical in supporting existing rights, which is a different point.

    http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/FreedomOpinion/Pages/OpinionIndex.aspx