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virtualGov.logoGovernance means all the processes that coordinate and control an organization’s resources and actions.

Its scope includes ethics, resource-management processes, accountability and management controls.

The Internet, when it was launched, was possibly one of the most revolutionary inventions in the history of Humankind. Not because of the technology — computer networks already existed — but mostly because of the way it was started and how it expanded. Roughly speaking, all it took was for willing network operators to download some communication software, accept to “play by the rules”, and they could get access to the existing nodes. This grew and grew to encompass possibly some 2 billion human beings (3 billions if we count mobile phones which have limited or full access to the Internet).

The key issue was how “to play by the rules” — who would define those rules, how would they be enforced? The revolution came from the model: everyone participating in the Internet could submit requests for comments on protocol proposals (RFC) for new communication protocols (as well as some social protocols like the Netiquette). And, after much discussion, everyone could then vote on the proposals; majority votes would allow a new protocol to be deployed and everyone on the Internet was required to adopt it.

Soon the Internet grew so much that only a group of selected few continued to work under this model. In the mean time, the very decentralised nature of the Internet meant that more and more people simply ignored how the Internet was originally set up, and just connected to it without a second thought. The simple governance model was mostly forgotten — and then ignored — as more and more governments and corporations started to impose their own rules. Abuses like spamming are one of the consequences of abandoning the governance model (in the early days, spamming would mean instant shutting down of the relevant nodes and exclusion from participation in the Internet).

But after over four decades, the Internet, even though different players control it — governments through legislation; Internet operators through technology; powerful megacorporations for content — is still baffling usual models of governance. International laws are hard to apply, as it’s easy to run encrypted protocols and deploy obfuscation on top of the world-wide network. Some countries tried to define how their jurisdiction applied to the Internet, but not all agree on the same set of laws. Other countries try to censor and monitor the Internet, but users elude the constant vigilance by deploying obfuscation and encryption techniques. Finally, large corporations are keen to track users down, monitor their usage, and sell profiling and location data, which is often not illegal — and even if it is, the central databases can just be pushed to a country where legislation is not so strict.

This makes us question how the Internet can be successfully “governed” by its users, and not the “power users” that try to control it. In almost all countries connected to the Internet, citizens live in democracies, and have a saying about everything that happens to them. The Internet, however, is beyond the reach of democratic measures — at least within the networks falling under the jurisdiction of a particular country. While this might be good for some who can thus avoid certain laws, it also means there is nobody who is able to enforce digital citizen’s rights.

The Internet is not really an anarchy because so many have a saying in it; but it’s hardly a democracy, because almost nobody is allowed to vote on how the Internet should work, and nobody protects our human rights effectively over the Internet. So it’s not unlike the Wild West or any similar semi-lawless frontier: if you’re powerful, you enforce your own law around yourself, but have little power beyond the network under your direct control. Unlike utopian anarchies, individuals have little or no saying on how that power is used, except in a very restricted sense of the word.

In the past, several organisations proposed Bills of Right for “netizens” (citizens of the Internet) and promoted them intensely. A simple Google search will find hundreds of organisations still believing that those rights and duties can be enforced effectively, so long as enough people adhere to those codes. But what all have in common is that no single entity has managed to get enough attention between all players — governments, corporations, and individuals — to be taken seriously. The Internet remains lawless and in the hands of a selected few.

While it might be impossible to launch a world-wide awareness campaign for Virtual Governance on the Internet, some efforts can be directed towards a small, tightly controlled area, and hopefully identify key issues when implementing it. This effort is mostly addressed to the virtual world of Second Life®, created by Linden Lab in 2003, and counting some 25 million registered users — merely 1% of the whole Internet, but a suitable “test ground” for virtual governance efforts.