Functional Governance

The regulation and governance of technology has tended to be based around industry sectors such as film, radio, television etc., or on things such as the radio spectrum or personal data.

I propose that we change this on a global scale and frame regulation in terms of the relationship between Functions and rights.


The Problem
Any practical taxonomy (including the one that I propose) has gaps. In the world of ‘old’ media this was not too much of a problem as media were relatively separate and static. Radio was Radio, TV was TV.

In the world of Convergent media (to use Jenkins’s term) this type of notion becomes problematic. Not only do particular technologies and notions of media change rapidly, they also blend, overlap and re-mediate each other. What’s more taken at face value even the notion of ‘media’ be it convergent or not may be inadequate to capture key features of the socio-technical practices that we see around us.

For example – ideas of virtual worlds as ‘places’ where speech may occur is a much more useful concept than ‘media’ for many purposes, though for other purposes is inappropriate.

We are thus left in a position where governance in its many forms has gaps, overlaps and contradictions. We also have initiatives that are likely to find that as their ink dries the intended objects of governance have evaporated.

The Solution
There is no simple solution to this. However what I believe will help as an approach to (at least some) regulation and governance bodies is - to see the universe of regulatatory objects in terms of Functions and collections of Functions, and not in terms of industries or applications.

What’s a ‘Function’?
Search, is a Function, as is User Registration, or Ranking. Each of these are processes that:

Now this is already partially applied in various forms of regulation; e.g. the EU have specific laws on the treatment of personal data. However statute in this area tends only to be at a highly abstracted level. Here I propose to move up one level of abstraction from notions such as ‘personal data’ and ‘common carrier’ to ‘Function’.

Across and Down
Let’s look at this two ways.

First let’s take ‘Registration’. What I mean by this is the bundle of processes whereby a user registers with something. Here we have a mixture of best practice and pre-existing statute e.g. the Data Protection Act in the UK which regulates how certain data are stored and treated. Though we might want to include other things into the understanding of what might be governed as a Function e.g. display and consent to terms and conditions during the registration process – which might be subject to industry best practice.

When we look at things in these terms we can see that there can be quite a rich set of Functional sets that would be highly common across applications. So registration for Club Penguin is very much the same as for Flickr and Facebook and Maple Story or for the Huffington Post.

To take a second Function – Ranking. There has been a recent controversy over YouTube’s ranking system wherein ‘Most Viewed’ and ‘Most Favorited’ videos are in fact not Most Viewed etc., as certain content is demoted. This seems the kind of area that may companies might want to do.

I’m not going to get into whether this is correct or not, rather note that this seems exactly the kind of Function that all stakeholder might want to see a consistent approach to – even if that approach is clarity (exempting trade secrets) in how the system works. It would help me as a user to know what I’m looking at if I’m told something is the most popular room in Metaplace or most popular group in Facebook – and I don’t want one to fall under ‘virtual world regulation’ and another to fall under ‘SNS regulation’ excepting in those places where there is something conceptually exceptional.

Now if we look down the Functional stack and take, say, Flickr we can see that it might have a bundle of Functions that overlap in many places with Second Life – especially in the areas of user generated content / IP. Second Life and World of Warcraft may be common when it comes to in-world money (though there we have an interesting question of sub-division which is well worth debating – I suspect there is a large common set between all virtual currency systems from a regulatory point of view).

EULA Freebie
Readers will probably be ahead of me here also in noting that with such a system we can see how at a certain level we can also start to move towards a common system of EULA not just across virtual worlds (as has been discussed in a few places) but across all online applications that have EULAs.

More Functions
Below I’ve suggested a few more Functional areas that look like they may be suitable objects of governances. As you see this is list is nested. I think this is critically important as it allows people to agree one what is common and leave what is unique or contested at the appropriate level of details – hence, while we might not know a specific thing about a virtual currency in a game with a fictional setting, this does not mean that we don’t know a whole lot about how virtual currencies in general should be governed.

Governance
Almost lastly I should point that that I am not advocating a highly top down system of government regulation. I’m NOT suggesting more governance – in fact viewing the world this way may expose overlaps which would lead to less governance (should we live in a world were redundant statutes etc were ever taken off the books).

What I am suggesting is that we look at what the objects of governance might be in a more rational way for the internet age and then decide whether they need to be governed at all and if so who by.

We may determine that some things are simply down to user choice, other things may fall under standards created by industry or even cross-industry groups and / or by regulators and state actors.

The framework I propose is wholly neutral about the from of governance that may or may not apply to any Function, what the contents of that governance, if any, are and who the governing actors are – it’s and empty framework.

Rights
I made not of ‘Rights’ at the top of this post as I tend to think about these matters in terms of individual and group rights.

Let’s think globally for a moment – after all, that’s what the internet is, global. This proposal might help to set the scene for a slightly different tenor of internal debate.

There are various rights frameworks such as: those from the UN, EU Convention on Human Rights and the US Constitution. The Functional approach may open up an illumining debate about matters such as the various conceptions of free expression and Functions related to things like User Generated Content and Search.  A US / EU debate over raking systems as interpreted under Article 10 of the Convention on Human rights and the 1st amendment would be a fascinating thing.

Again, while not a panacea this is another way to approach the international debate over regulatory harmonization (or lack of) and the burden that this places on any business seeking to use the internet and any user seeking to use a system based on the internet.


Endnote
Lastly as with any sweeping suggestion like this I awaited someone to tell me that there is an entire library on the subject, or it’s been tried and failed or it’s exactly what’s going on already. I’ve not read anything that propose this form of governance but please supply reverences if it’s already out there it will simply add weight to the idea.

Oh, and the pun that this is both a system of Functions and a system that should actually Function is well intended :)


Comments on Functional Governance :

Julian Kücklich says:

I think the flaw in this argument is to see "media and technological practices" as objects, rather than agents, of governance.

In other words: if policy wants to play a meaningful role in the world of "convergent media" it'll have to shift to many2many.

Otherwise, we end up with a neo-feudalist global society with "benign dictatorships" (@dingstweets) throwing their weight around.

Obviously, people like Alexander Galloway, Ned Rossiter, and Tiziana Terranova have expressed this much more succinctly.

"The framework I propose is wholly neutral." I understand why you say that, but it's not.

First and foremost, the term and the concept of a "function" is not neutral, and it's impossible to define a function globally.

But even if we were able to define a function globally, these functions would serve different, um, functions in different systems.

In other words, you are in danger of turning this into a neo-colonial, technocratic enterprise. Sorry to spoil the party.

[Reposted from twitter.com/cucchiaio]

Posted Jun 13, 2009 2:23:23 AM | link

Ren Reynolds says:

Julian,
Thanks – ok, more nuance.

First some background on the context of the post. I spend an increasing amount of time with policy makers and regulators at both national and international levels. Much of the discourse there focuses on the assumed need to be seen to be regulating something. This translates into an application of regulatory models forged in mechanical and none-digital-electric ages to the landscape we see today. This is cashed out in terms of seeing things like web sites, games and more recently Social Networking Sites as the things that can be controlled using the techniques and bodies of top down, static-content-based regulation.

I want to provide some counter to this.


> I think the flaw in this argument is to see "media and technological practices" as objects, rather than agents, of governance.

If I understand this correctly think they are both, though I have probably not addressed this adequately in my thoughts. The two ways in which I have tired to be cognizant of it are:

1/ By acknowledging that affordances in technology contribute to shaping practices; and by suggesting that one tool of governance would be to be more transparent in the way they are documented. To take the YouTube example the ‘algorithmic’ nature of their ranking system is not merely but actively regulating user behavior – I want such things to be considered more by all actors.

2/ I also think that self-norming of individuals and groups that we see on the net is something that should be take on board by those that are quick to apply top down regulation. That, in fact, no part of the internet is ‘not regulated’ is simply might not be regulated by ‘you’ or something who you feel is capable or correct


> In other words: if policy wants to play a meaningful role in the world of "convergent media" it'll have to shift to many2many.

I think I’m suggesting a blending.


> Otherwise, we end up with a neo-feudalist global society with "benign dictatorships" (@dingstweets) throwing their weight around.

Well, we have a world of state and non-state actors throwing their weight around, I’m just suggesting that if they are going to throw it (which the are) they can target the throwing a lot better. The relationship between things like state actors, technologies (including things like OpenSource peer-to-peer) ones that is complex constantly shifting. I think the addition of this ‘sideways look’ will help.


> Obviously, people like Alexander Galloway, Ned Rossiter, and Tiziana Terranova have expressed this much more succinctly.

I get the feeling I should read Galloway’s Protocol and other stuff again (oddly I’d forgotten about Galloway when I wrote the post).


>"The framework I propose is wholly neutral." I understand why you say that, but it's not.

OK, that was lazy. It’s neutral in respect to some of its potential applications.


>First and foremost, the term and the concept of a "function" is not neutral, and it's impossible to define a function globally.

I do acknowledge that definition by Function will be approximate and Partial, I just think it’s a better approximation in the context of the Internet than the ones currently used.

>But even if we were able to define a function globally, these functions would serve different, um, functions in different systems.

Yes. The question is whether they can do useful work before they break down and become too particular. At the level of international regulatory discourse I think they are a better or at the very least an alternative to the ones applied at present e.g. ‘web site’, ‘social network site’.


>In other words, you are in danger of turning this into a neo-colonial, technocratic enterprise.

I need to use that as a sub-title if I write a paper on this :)


>Sorry to spoil the party

Posted Jun 13, 2009 6:42:51 AM | link

Julian Kücklich says:

"... the assumed need to be seen to be regulating something." Yeh, this is precisely the problem: from a systems theory point of view regulatory bodies follow an autopoietic vector that leads to an increasing self-reflexivity. This doesn't allow them to see anything in non-regulatory terms. It's this binary way of thinking that needs to be tackled in order to move forward.

In regard to what you say about functions and transparency, I think the basic problem is that political apathy spans the real/virtual divide (just take a look at the failed fb governance initiative, which however misguided and simulacrean provided the opportunity for an antagonistic engagement with a "benign dictatorship"). In other words, there is as little interest in the increasing surveillance of public space as there is in ranking algorithms.


I agree with what you say about how forms of self-regulation (however well they serve the subjects of regulation) are perceived as non-regulated by regulatory bodies and that we need a blending of top-down and bottom-up approaches. However, there is a danger that this will be attempted within a consensual rather than an antagonistic paradigm which will brush the inherent differences between policy makers and subjects of policy under the carpet of multi-stakeholderism.

As far as "international regulatory discourse" is concerned, I fear that this is but a thinly veiled euphemism for powerful state actors throwing their weight around, just like WIPO serves US interests when it comes to extending the reach of copyright. If I knew a way to circumvent or disrupt this I wouldn't be sitting on my ass writing comments, but go out there and do it, but for the time being I remain unenlightened, so, for better or for worse, we can continue this conversation.

Posted Jun 13, 2009 12:28:41 PM | link

Richard Bartle says:

One of the functions that seems to be missing is "nesting".

Example: suppose that I create a game world set in the period of the Three Musketeers. However, I don't program it all myself, I use a tool such a Metaplace to help me do it. Only, I decide not to use Metaplace directly, I use a version of it that someone has implented as an island in Second Life.

There are a bunch of functions you mention here (eg. RMT may be allowed in SL, restricted in ersatz-Metaplace and forbidden in 3Musketeers, for their respective currencies). However, there isn't anything that addresses the relationship between the different worlds.

Needless to say, having formulated such a new "nesting" function, it can logically be applied to the relationship between SL and the real world; this isn't necessarily something which which real world regulators will necessarily be comfortable.

Richard

Posted Jun 14, 2009 5:05:16 AM | link

Ren Reynolds says:

I guess I'd see nesting as a relation between Functions. Though I think I need to think about that because I suppose it could be something with properties in and of itself.

Posted Jun 14, 2009 5:53:04 AM | link

dmyers says:

1. "But even if we were able to define a function globally, these functions would serve different, um, functions in different systems."

What function requires functions to serve different functions in different systems?

2. If "nesting" is placing something within something, then "contextualizing" is placing something around something. I prefer "contextualizing" as the primary function and "nesting" as a derivative function.

3. One primary function is "contextualizing," which might also be considered "positioning." The other primary function is then "oppositioning," which might also be considered "decontextualizing."

(E. g. "Oppositioning" would be Julian's function.)

4. Wtf is going on with this forum's comment function squinching everything together in the middle of the page with weird spacing and making me not want to read it like at all ever? Function-think globally, function-act locally.

Posted Jun 16, 2009 2:11:57 PM | link

Hexxx says:

I know you guys don't always keep up to date with the latest; but EVE Online just had a second case of embezzlement which resulted in a real-world $6,000 USD theft on it's largest player-run Bank that includes a governing Board of Directors, Staff, a CEO, and a Chairman.

This is the second Bank it's happened to and both Banks have managed to survive both the theft and the panic of depositors who became anxious about their funds. There is no central bank or regulation in EVE, it is a pure free market and while the Banks sometimes cooperate with each other....it's all based purely on trust.

The news story documenting this can be found on the New York Times and the Telegraph in the UK.

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/15/business/15views.html?_r=1&ref=business

CCP's resident Economist has indicated that no assistance from CCP is forthcoming....in other words; no virtual bailouts.

Posted Jun 17, 2009 9:32:55 AM | link

Ren Reynolds says:

Hexxx >> I know you guys don't always keep up to date with the latest; but EVE Online …

A few of us here follow EvE Online.

>> just had a second case of embezzlement which resulted in a real-world $6,000 USD theft on it's largest player-run Bank that includes a governing Board of Directors, Staff, a CEO, and a Chairman.

Well CCP maintain a very strong line on the EvE economy being strictly closed, thus they would argue that what ever occurred did not and can not result in a ‘real-world’ theft or loss. i.e. there is no spoon.

Posted Jun 17, 2009 9:40:57 AM | link

Dave says:

@ Ren Reynolds

There may be no spoon, but there was a perma-ban for the EULA breach of converting in-game currency into RL currency.

So, maybe we can say this is a spork?

As for my EVE Online comment; based on my previous discussion with Castranova, he appears completely disinterested in EVE because it "promotes war" and in some way this makes it unworthy to discuss in an academic fashion.

What other MMO endorses unbridled anarcho-capitalism to this disagree? There are no equivalents to my knowledge.


Posted Jun 17, 2009 5:25:21 PM | link

Ren Reynolds says:

Dave > There may be no spoon, but there was a perma-ban for the EULA breach of converting in-game currency into RL currency.

> So, maybe we can say this is a spork?

No. To maintain the truth of no-spoon VW companies have to, and have to be seen to, take action against anyone that breaches this. Thus it confirms the no-spoonness.


> As for my EVE Online comment; based on my previous discussion with Castranova, he appears completely disinterested in EVE because it "promotes war" and in some way this makes it unworthy to discuss in an academic fashion.

I don’t know his views on the subject so can’t comment on them. However I’d suggest that EvE is possibly the most complex game ever created. Also CCP does not promote ‘war’ as such, the game is sand-pit everyone could not war if they wanted. OK OK big ships big guns – what else you gonna do.

> What other MMO endorses unbridled anarcho-capitalism to this disagree?

EvE is one of the many unique examples of what they do.

Posted Jun 17, 2009 5:35:15 PM | link

Richard Bartle says:

Hexxx>EVE Online just had a second case of embezzlement which resulted in a real-world $6,000 USD theft

At the risk of derailing Ren's thread...

No-one stole $6,000 of real money. They may have used the rules of EVE to transfer ISK from one account to another account, and then sold this ISK for real money. No theft went on, though, any more than theft goes on if you win the pot in a poker game.

If the individual concerned had not cashed the ISK in for dollars, would there have been a "real-world $6,000" theft?

Richard

Posted Jun 18, 2009 3:23:50 AM | link

Tom H. says:

From the engineer's level, what you're talking about sounds like "aspect-oriented policy".

Aspect-Oriented Programming was a buzzword roughly a decade ago that said "We have these cross-cutting concerns that crop up all over our software systems, and in project after project; how can we (efficiently) implement them once and manage them in a controlled fashion, instead of having that implementatuon & management scattered all over the place and hard to assess?" This got the most attention when thinking about security, or its facets (permissions, encryption, ...) as Aspects.

Posted Jun 23, 2009 9:39:05 PM | link