Happy Birthday, ISOC.

by Maria on January 5, 2012

The Internet Society (ISOC) is twenty years old in 2012. ISOC is a nonprofit with offices in Washington DC and Geneva, and operations around the world. It was created almost as an afterthought by two of the people who helped start the Internet itself; Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn. This was a far-sighted act to help keep the Internet open and evolving, not just in Europe and North America, but all over the world. Ten years ago, a deal was struck to channel into ISOC the surplus funds from running dot ORG. ISOC has expanded rapidly since then, but kept a tight focus on doing more of what it does best.

ISOC does essential work campaigning for public policies that keep the Internet open and offering technical training, especially in developing countries. It has hundreds of local chapters around the world that teach people how to build out the Internet and develop their own professional and technical leadership skills. The chapters push for open and ready access in their own countries and feed in information and viewpoints to ISOC’s global advocacy work.

But let me step aside from how ISOC would probably describe itself, and put some less modest flesh on these bones.

Outside the most developed countries, there are probably just a few thousand people in the world who are building out the Internet for the bottom two or three billion. Pretty much all of them will have come up through ISOC. They will have done country code management training days or learnt to deploy IPv6. They’ll have been sent to an IETF meeting or taught how to configure a name-server. Through their local or national ISOC chapter, these individuals will turn enthusiasm and a little knowledge into real professional competence and a set of relationships that make things happen for their countries.

If you look at the development of the Internet, it’s clear that a critical mass of knowledge, curiosity and, above all, relationships are responsible. Each country has replicated this process with its own kernel of people building the country code, routing the traffic and agitating for openness and investment. This all happens long before a local telco incumbent or communications ministry clues in. (Though often these organisations will include people who get involved and informed via the local ISOC chapter.) ISOC has spent the last two decades quietly turning human technical latency into real, live bit-streams, with all the good and some bad that flows through them.

It’s hard to exaggerate ISOC’s reach, but let me give an example. About a year ago I was traveling around East Africa for work. A road trip in southern Ethiopia concluded earlier than expected and I had a free afternoon in Addis Ababa. I contacted the local ISOC chapter and within less than twenty four hours had set up meetings with Internet entrepreneurs and activists. Those sessions were more eye-opening than my previous days of visits to regional IT centres. If you want to plug in to practical yet visionary technologists anywhere, ISOC is the place to go.

But ISOC is more than a social agency for geeks. Let’s take a moment to refresh on the different layers of the Internet; the physical pipes, the interlocking protocols, the software and applications. AT&T or Deutsche Telekom own the pipes. Facebook and Google run software and sell services that go through the pipes. What ties it all together are the protocols and standards in between. Those protocols and standards are a mix of computer code and human behavior. They are developed openly and with the object of maintaining the ‘end to end’ nature of the Internet. The Internet Society is an essential part of this.

Every company that builds its empire on the Internet, and every government that finally gets around to noticing it, inevitably wants to make the Internet proprietary, tame and, ultimately, finite. They give lip service to the Internet as a common pool resource whose value is its limitlessness and ubiquity, but in practice cannot get beyond a mindset of parsing, constraining, monetizing and controlling. Left to their own devices, business and government will devour and destroy the precise characteristics of the Internet that make it a continuing platform for innovation and creativity.

As the legal and philosophical home of the IETF and IAB, ISOC plays a critical role in creating and maintaining the actual and metaphorical middleware; the base protocols that allow anyone’s software to run, or content to flow through. ISOC is an astonishingly important, albeit deeply unassuming organization. I wish ISOC and everyone associated with it many more decades of productive work.



Andreas Moser 01.05.12 at 3:49 pm

This whole internet is a stupid, superficial thing. I think I will turn it off again.


Sumana Harihareswara 01.05.12 at 7:02 pm

Thanks for the summary, Maria! Happy birthday to ISOC and yay internet. :-)


John Garrett 01.05.12 at 8:37 pm

In the early ’90’s, when it was all getting going, I can’t count how many times corporate or government people asked me who really ran the Internet, since it couldn’t be the IETF and ISOC volunteers. That a volunteer organization of skilled, smart people built the Internet, without corporate, government or much management, is one of the great incompletely told stories of the last thirty years. That, and the domination of TCP/IP, which was going to be buried and replaced more times than you could count by Microsoft, government, and many others. Raise a toast to Bob Kahn, Vint Cerf, and the rest of the crew!


tomslee 01.05.12 at 10:01 pm

I was just hearing from my son about the extensive rights and privileges that the East India Tea Company got in order to encourage it to build its trade routes. Connecting one side of the world to another has always been one of those tasks so capital intensive that it needed huge upfront commitment (Canadian National Railway comes to mind too). The fact that the Internet grew largely based on these volunteer efforts (in the early days at least) and with little to none of that huge-scale institutional investment is quite remarkable.


tomslee 01.05.12 at 10:04 pm

Speaking of Vint Cerf, his op-ed in today’s NYT is a worthwhile and timely read: Internet Access Is Not a Human Right.


John Quiggin 01.06.12 at 4:28 am

I didn’t like the Cerf op-ed so much. If human rights are independent of technology, why have we always made such a big deal about freedom of the press?

But, given his contributions, I’m happy to overlook (what I see as) a slightly misguided oped piece.


Jack Strocchi 01.06.12 at 5:20 am

John Quiggin @ #6

I didn’t like the Cerf op-ed so much. If human rights are independent of technology, why have we always made such a big deal about freedom of the press?

Cerf is demarcating the philosophical distinction between instrumental tools (technology) and institutional rules (ideology). Its a good one to keep in mind both in itself and because of its implications.

Mechanical tools and societal rules both further human purposes but they are not the same thing and it is fallacious to identify one with the other. Particularly in head-line philosophical documents which attempt to highlight a state’s most important values.

Moreover, technology is subject to rapid revolution whilst ideology tends a more gradual evolution. Thus nailing a particular piece of practical technology to a general ideological principle will, after a few cycles of technological change, tend to make the ideological principle look dated and even ludicrous. The Declaration of Independence would look silly if Jefferson had insisted that all men had the right to papyrus access.

Cerf is pointing out that rights to freedom of the press are civic rights to publish without hindrance from authority, not economic “rights” to a particular piece of publishing technology eg Gutenburg Press, mimeograph, internet. The word “press” here is ambiguous, meaning (legally) the Fourth Estate and (technically) a machine for imprinting ink on paper. I suggest we leave such ambiguities to poets and punsters.

More generally, the liberal compulsion to draw up Charters of Human Rights is not altogether helpful, particularly when anchored to a particular piece of technology eg “right to bear arms”. Even the most fanatical liberal rights entitler should be wary of burdening future states with never-ending debates like the one the US grapples with over the Second Amendment.


Tim Wilkinson 01.06.12 at 11:42 pm

I’d say the Cerf piece is pretty shaky.

What about the claim that Internet access is or should be a civil right? The same reasoning above can be applied here — Internet access is always just a tool for obtaining something else more important — though the argument that it is a civil right is, I concede, a stronger one than that it is a human right. Civil rights, after all, are different from human rights because they are conferred upon us by law, not intrinsic to us as human beings.

This is quite wrong – ‘should be a civil right’ is a statement of the same kind as ‘is a human right’. If there’s an important distinction, it’s about the relative fundamentalness or universality of rights. It’s easy to argue that any right to internet access would be less fundamental – that is, more derivative – than some other rights. So easy that it’s hard to see why one would bother. (Certainly not because of anything the French Constitutional Council had to say about it – http://www.businessweek.com/globalbiz/content/jun2009/gb20090612_316254.htm).

An argument could I suppose be started over the status of a derivative right which can be secured only given a certain degree of technological development, which might then be supposed less than universal. Running water, electricity supply – I don’t think internet access would be out of place on this list, even though obviously less vital than water and electricity (there’s a sense in which it logically couldn’t be more important than electricity, which it depends on).

And indeed, Cerf raises the idea that telephone service (and electricity, and now broadband Internet) must be available even in the most remote regions of the country. When we accept this idea, we are edging into the idea of Internet access as a civil right, because ensuring access is a policy made by the government, he adds. Having got to the live version of whatever issue there is here, he then abruptly ends that discussion altogether and turns to a different (‘more fundamental’) issue for the rest of the article.

To pick up where he leaves off: developments in technology don’t just raise the frontier of what rights it’s realistic to recognise – they also, by widespread adoption, raise the floor of which needs or interests count as urgent, thus (by the standards generally used) to be recognised as rights.

E.g. UK banks have succeeded over the past 20-30 years in making bank accounts indispensable, largely by offering ‘free’ banking (on which don’t get me started). The last government ended up in the position of providing free basic bank accounts – via IIRC private for-profit providers and the post office network – for those customers, primarily I think benefits recipients – that even the ingenious bleeders at the banks weren’t interested in. In 2010 the govt finally (I think) introduced a requirement on all banks to offer basic free bank accounts which are supposed to be open to all bar bankrupts and convicted fraudsters. I expect they can still get one of the state ones.

This kind of thing might be what the UN rapporteur meant by “become an indispensable tool for realizing a range of human rights.” I suppose I could read the source and find out, but it would be just too tedious to find I was wrong, so I won’t do that. The idea anyway would be that as businesses, governments and everyone else increasingly comes to assume that one has internet access, one becomes increasingly handicapped by not having it. And not deprived only relatively to the rest of the population (though relative deprivation may well be able to found rights claims in any case) – services which were previously available offline are (so the argument might go) being superseded by internet equivalents (but I’m not going to check any actual examples.)

The second amendment – if the problem is supposed to be that the framers did not anticipate the possibility that ‘arms’ might include modern assault rifles, rpg launchers, etc – actually suffers from being insufficiently specific about contemporary technology. This is the opposite of the putative Papyrus Problem.

In fact, updating explicit refs to obsolete or superseded technologies in law is dealt with (in common law jurisdictions) judicially, by such expedients as introducing legal fictions – which can be amusing but are harmless. Extending specific categories in this way is I think probably a lot easier, more clear cut and less controversial than trying to restrict general ones.

Though given there was to be a 2nd amendment roughly along the lines of the actual one, I have no idea how it could have been framed so as to avoid the ensuing arguments.


John Quiggin 01.08.12 at 4:00 am

Getting totally OT, but it seems entirely implausible to me that the founders meant to exclude military weapons like RPGs and assault rifles, while protecting the right to handguns. The whole point was to create the preconditions for a “well-regulated militia”, and the AK-47 is the classic militia weapon. More generally, I don’t see technological change as creating a problem. There’s an issue about the kinds of heavy weapons (tanks, bombers, nukes) that wouldn’t normally be available to militia members, but artillery was already a specialist item in C18, and AFAICT it’s accepted that this wasn’t covered by the 2nd Amendment.

If I were pursuing gun control in the US, I’d go for legislation requiring all gun owners to enrol in the Army Reserve and make themselves available for deployment in places like Iraq. That would have some interesting effects.


Tim Wilkinson 01.08.12 at 10:06 am

Yes, I don’t know if that’s what JS meant and certainly didn’t intend to express any agreement. I assumed it must be something like that given the context.

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