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On Wednesday evening, Joanna Geary posted a challenge to all and sundry on Twitter.

To wit:

"OK, choose your own adventure! It is an early summer morning. You wake up to the sound of constant buzzing on your phone. Reading many messages you discover your name has been picked in a compulsory lottery. You are now Lord High Ruler of the Internet. What do you do next?"


Observation: she capitalized "Internet". So nostalgic. We all should, but the Associated Press style book is against us.

I tried answering: "Convene a wise council."

Geary: "You have chosen to convene a wise council. Your first task is to produce a list of names for the council and justify why they are the wisest for the job. Who do you choose?"

Me (muttering, "That should be *whom*"): "Depends. What's the job? And what would *you* do? (Yes, I know it's your game.)"

Geary: "You have chosen to ask host. ... ... Cannot contact the specified host. The host may not be available on the network or to keep consistency this host may not be responding."

Right. I know where I am now. It's a text-based online game. We who came before the generation who grew up on graphical games remember these things from the 1980s, when Richard Bartle and Roy Trubshaw's MUD launched a genre and Douglas Adams tortured many people with the game version of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, a time-sink series of frustrating puzzles. How Geary spent her childhood is now clear.

I reply: "*Go north." In response, she sends me to Canada and repeats: "What do you want to do next?" (She's got me on the wrong continent, but I digress.)

Geary, a former journalist and director of curation at Twitter, is also founder of London's edition of Hacks/Hackers, a gathering that smashes together journalists and computer hackers for mutual benefit.

Geary's main question is the same one everyone has been struggling with ever since 1980-something, when John Connolly reportedly demanded, "Who's in charge?" of a roomful of engineers. Connolly had a right to ask: he was the guy at the National Science Foundation who funded what eventually became the Internet backbone. We're no nearer an answer now.

The history of the Internet is littered with "wise councils" working to solve things for the greater good. In the early days, they were mostly engineers: IETF, ISOC, Jon Postel. It was Postel and his group who allocated the country code domain name registries, deciding to adopt the ISO list to determine whether the UK should be .uk or .gb, for example.

"The IANA [Internet Assigned Numbers Authority] is not in the business of deciding what is and is not a country," Postel wrote in RFC 1591 in 1994. "The selection of the ISO 3166 list as a basis for country code top-level domain names was made with the knowledge that ISO has a procedure for determining which entities should be and should not be on that list."

In that statement, Postel, the nearest thing to Geary's Lord High Ruler the Internet has ever had, provided a useful model for Internet governance: he set limits; deferred to established processes and the knowledgeable experts who created them after serious study; and published the reasoning. "RFC", "request for comments", was deliberately chosen for collaboration. Before the big money came in, someone told me at a policy conference circa 1998, anyone pushing a proposal's adoption because it would be good for their company would have been booed off the stage. Today, even the Tim Berners Lee-led W3C struggles to resist corporate influence.

By the mid-1990s, it was clear Internet governance needed more disciplines: civil society, international relations, economists, security practitioners...lawyers. Just one lawyer present when the domain name system was created, Michael Froomkin said at We Robot 2015, could have averted decades of disputes. Postel himself was replaced in 1998 by ICANN, which is currently proving that despite its multistakeholder model it's so resolutely American that it thinks it can cut a deal with GDPR.

In Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, Lawrence Lessig argued that there are four means of regulation: market, code/architecture, social norms, and law. The market beloved of libertarians is failing in all sorts of ways, most notably privacy; law struggles to cross international borders; much code has become pwned by the largest Internet companies; and no one can agree on norms.

In a coda, Barlow added, "In the absence of law, ethics and responsibility is [sic] what you have to have." But again: who defines the ethics and the responsibility?

So we are back to Geary's challenge, having eliminated most avenues of approach. Grumpily lifting my crown, I think I would start with access, primarily through municipal and cooperatively built networks. In Cybersalon's unscientific poll at the 2015 Web We Want Festival it was the number one complaint, even in some areas of London. Improving access will continue to enlarge the tranche of existing problems: security, privacy, literacy, education, insufficient competition, network neutrality, centralization, public and private investment, law enforcement, security, protection for democratic processes, moderating toxic human behavior, governance, control, censorship, bullying and intimidation, and technical development. All that will need many wise councils.

But first: let there be light.

Illustrations: Screenshot of Geary's Twitter post.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.


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