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.
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.
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:
- occur in a number of application;
- have been relatively stable over time;
- are capable of being understood in within regulatory frameworks and boundaries.
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).
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.
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.
- Virtual Currency
- Closed economy (no RMT)
- Fictive / game based
- One way exchange (currency buy systems)
- Exchange based (fully exchangeable virtual currency)
- Closed economy (no RMT)
- Provider based content provision
- User Generated Content
- Synchronous textual / symbolic communications
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.
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.
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 :)