[governance] Cerfing the Web, or Serfing the Web? (Understanding Google's Internet Evangelism against Internet Access Rights)

parminder parminder at itforchange.net
Tue Jan 17 02:45:21 EST 2012

Hi All

It has been a very interesting discussion on Vint Cerf's op-ed on 
Internet as (not being) a human right. I had some conceptual troubles 
with the discussion for which reason I stayed out thus far. But Paul's 
reinterpreting the discussion gives me a point of departure.

Two (very different) kinds of people have opposed terming access to the 
Internet as a human right. One category is of tech/ Internet-enthusiast 
who otherwise argue so much about how the Internet has fundamentally 
transformed the world and so on. The other kind are among those who work 
with issues of devleopment and poverty and find it a bit far-fetched to 
speak of the Internet as a right given the present socio-economic 
scenario they witness around them. It is very important to see that the 
'objections' of these two groups are of a /very /different nature.

I think Internet should be seen as a right, but I have sympathies for 
the views of the second group above, because I can understand why they 
think as they do. They see people around them deprived of such basic 
things that to them it looks almost a bit insensitive to speak of the 
Internet as a right. However, they have perhaps not given much deep 
thought to how the Internet is fundamentally and structurally 
transforming social relationship, in a manner that impacts all, whether 
on the Internet or not. However, as I said, I do sympathise with this 
group of people, and the reason why they are averse to talking about a 
right to the internet.

My real issue is with those who otherwise speak no end about the 
transformatory impact of the Internet, and how the Internet is the best 
thing to have happened to human beings for a long long time, but are 
hesitant to use the terminology of 'rights' vis a vis the Internet. We 
need to understand why they do so? I have followed postings of people 
like McTim on this list who instinctively draw back from a 'rights' 
terminology regarding the Internet, while their own lives seem deeply 
steeped in things Internet.

Let me attempt a simple response to the quandary I posed. The problem I 
think with many if not most people of this category/ group is that when 
one speaks of 'rights' very soon after one can be expected to speak 
about 'law'; and they just kind of hate application of human (political) 
law to the Internet. (as if the Internet is not already an artefact 
subject to various kinds of human will and interests.) This, in my view, 
is the real problem with the 'rights' terminology for this group.

They see the Internet purely as a domain of private relationships and 
contracts between individuals, who are somehow seen as automatically and 
equally empowered by the technology, which is of course a dangerous 
myth. This new 'free', 'open' and 'unencumbered' cyberspace that allows 
myriad private relationships and contracts is sought to replace the 
'social contract' which underlies our polities and our laws.  So of 
course there is no need for a social contract or of laws regarding the 
Internet. Internet is itself the law giver or rather the law replacer. 
Which is also why many of them do not speak of citizens, or people of 
humans in relation to the Internet, we have the term 'users' - people 
defined in relation to the Internet rather than the other way around. 
The term 'rights' simply doesn't sit too well with this world view, 
other than perhaps a very abstracted and disembodied version of human 
rights, released from their connection with polities and law, the kind 
that is too often heard spoken of in Internet governance spaces.

All of the above is not necessarily a precise critique of the Vint 
Cerf's article as such, but these are the thoughts that arise in my mind 
on reading it, and the subsequent discussion. When one takes up the pen, 
or the keyboard, to write an op-ed with the heading 'Internet access is 
not a human right' one would generally have a compelling reason behind 
it. Frankly, I havent been able to divine the reason that propelled Vint 
in this case. I am sure he was not simply interested in interrogating 
conceptual issues around rights, need of horses and the such. So, why 
did he really take the trouble to write this article, is something I am 
not clear about. What problem was he addressing (as a techie, such 
clarity of thought must be native to him)?


On Tuesday 17 January 2012 09:21 AM, Paul Lehto wrote:
>      It would be odd for an evangelist of the Christian religion, or 
> any other religion, to argue that people had no right of access to the 
> "Technology" of the Christian religion - the book known as the Bible.  
> But Vinton G. Cerf, official "chief Internet evangelist" for Google, 
> Inc., strangely argued an analogous proposition:  That people have "no 
> right to access the Internet" Mr. Cerf is paid to evangelise for by 
> Google, Inc.  Calling the Internet a mere tool or technology that 
> enables "real" rights such as free speech, Mr. Cerf apparently 
> considers anyone denied the Internet by arbitrary government action, 
> for example, to have been deprived of nothing they have a right to 
> access.  Would a religious "evangelist" take the same attitude about 
> accessing the Bible, and think that the right to freedom of religion 
> did NOT encompass a right to access the Bible in either print or 
> electronic form?
>      I find Mr. Cerf's argument to be, frankly, nonsensical.  At the 
> same time, I can readily understand it as a coherent statement of 
> Google's business position on the future of the Internet when Cerf's 
> statements are considered side by side with Google CEO Eric Schmidt's 
> famous statements to the Wall Street Journal in 2010 comparing 
> Google's classic search engine business with its newer Android-based 
> strategy, focused on giving Android away to cell phone companies for 
> free, because of the extremely lucrative market thus made available to 
> Google to sell targeted ads to cell phone users:
>         "I actually think most people don't want Google to answer
>         their questions," he elaborates. "*They want Google to tell
>         them what they should be doing next."*
>         Let's say you're walking down the street. Because of the info
>         Google has collected about you, "we know roughly who you are,
>         roughly what you care about, roughly who your friends are."
>         [And, thanks to Android GPS capabilities, they know where you
>         are, within a tolerance of about one foot, if you carry an
>         Android "smart"phone.]
>     Google's business vision for the future of the Internet is
>     reasonably clear:  They already have extremely detailed data on
>     each user, and they want to use all of that data to push ads in
>     front of users allegedly targeted to what Google "already knows"
>     they want, and sell many "heads ups" to local restaurants and
>     other "opportunities" in the physical vicinity of wherever the
>     Android user may happen to be.
>     If the above idea is even close to being correct (and it makes
>     sense of Schmidt's bold claim that we "want Google to tell [us]
>     what [to do] next") then we can understand why Google, via their
>     official public face and Internet evangelist Vinton G. Cerf, would
>     try to evangelize against Internet access rights in the January 4,
>     2012 New York Times: *Any such "right to access" the Internet is
>     clearly a potential interference with Google's business plan to
>     reconfigure the Internet based on what it thinks we want from the
>     Internet*, in Google's sole discretion, based on the voluminous
>     data Google routinely collects on users.
>     You and I may prefer to make our own discoveries on the Internet,
>     and do our own searches.  But Google, quite literally, thinks it
>     knows better than we do, and even goes so far as to claim that
>     it's what we really want from Google, in the end:  for Google to
>     tell us all what to do.
>     Many people object to Google's idea with fervor, and would much
>     prefer to tell Google /where to go/, than to have Google tell them
>     what to do.
>     But imagine an aggressive, ad-selling, data-shaping future google
>     that is choosing so much data for us and putting it in front of
>     our faces that it can be said that the "Internet" as we now know
>     it is no longer accessible to us, only an edited and targeted
>     shadow of the Internet chosen by Google is accessible to us, as a
>     practical matter, on our devices.   This is not too hard to
>     imagine at all, since most of it is already here.  Such a
>     "personalized" Internet is but a shadow, albeit an arguably
>     personalized and targeted shadow, of the Internet we know today. 
>     Perhaps (and this is only a maybe) we could still get to the "full
>     Internet" if we are committed to doing so and know what we are
>     doing, but to do so we will have to wade past Google's
>     paternalistic suggestions for what we should be doing next, and
>     past Google's conclusion that people no longer want "Google to
>     provide them with information, they want google to tell them what
>     to do."
>     Clearly, a right to access the Internet is in tension with, if not
>     in conflict with, Google's business vision for the future of the
>     Internet.  Mr. Cerf's many notable achievements related to the
>     Internet aside, he indisputably owes a duty of loyalty to his
>     employer, Google, and in this particular context, Mr. Cerf is not
>     speaking as a true evangelist for the Internet, he is speaking out
>     of loyalty to the forthcoming business vision and profitability of
>     his employer, Google Inc.
>     Perhaps Google's increasingly paternalistic vision of Internet
>     users, in which they decide for us what we should do next, and
>     presume that we don't really want Google to simply provide
>     information at our choosing, will one day give new meaning to the
>     phrase Cerfing the Net, which perhaps will be spelled Serfing the
>     Net, in honor of Vinton G. Cerf's feudalistic exposition on their
>     new internet reality in which one's rights of access to the
>     Internet are predetermined, as in feudal days, by the land (or
>     operating system) one is born on or born into.
>     The masters of the universe at Google are indeed on the very
>     precipice of being the Lords of the Internet, not evangelists of
>     the Internet.  Lords do not simply answer searching questions,
>     Lords tell us what we should be doing next.  Evangelists hope and
>     pray that ALL will access the Internet or the Bible, but by saying
>     there is no right of access to the Internet, Mr. Serf is made
>     himself and fellow executives at Google our Lords, and abandoned
>     his post as Chief evangelist of the Internet, at Google.
> -- 
> Paul R Lehto, J.D.
> P.O. Box 1
> Ishpeming, MI  49849
> lehto.paul at gmail.com <mailto:lehto.paul at gmail.com>
> 906-204-4026 (cell)
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