• Law, Policy -- and IT?

    Tracy Mitrano explores the intersection where higher education, the Internet and the world meet (and sometimes collide).


The Politics of Standards

Justice still matters.


January 25, 2016

Just as the Internet has challenged and changed the world, so too has technology begotten new meaning to the term “standards” in contemporary society. In 1976, for example, to pick the year I was 18 (read: a long time ago) and Congress passed the current foundational U.S. copyright law, if one were to ask the person on the street their associations to the word “standards,” most would have reflected on behavioral norms. Today it is more likely that at least some people would associate to technological ones. Certainly people who work with technology could not miss the cue. To the degree that a common association to standards moves in that direction is a measure of how much technology has become a part of culture.  

We witnessed this beginning of this transformation already. Code, as Lawrence Lessig so presciently noted in his book of that name, worked with the emerging, complicated meanings of that term from law to technology in the age of the Internet. His analysis was acute. Both factors have the inherent power to restrict or liberate personal experience.  “East” (legal) and “West” (technical) coast code (in his nomenclature) may or may not be in sync with each other.  The “copyright wars” of the last decade are a perfect example of the kind of consequences that derive from slippage in synchronization, that is at least until another factor -- in this case a market for legal, digital media delivered on line -- monetized the commodity for the companies that produce it. 

Ten years after this landmark book, we would do well to update its significance by looking deeply into the politics of standards. What code was to the emerging Internet, standards are to the maturing one. Technically, standards move conventions “up the stack,” so to speak, from machine and software language to behavioral rules that sometimes carry the imprint of law.  Privacy, security and accessibility standards are prime examples, which is why I began this series addressing those topics specifically.  And herein lies the significance of the oft-used phrase “… by design.” Fill in the black: security, privacy or accessibility “by design.” In each of those examples the common thread is how software code and user interfaces can accomplish the behavioral goals to which each of those qualities entreats social policy. Taking our lesson from Lessig, let us not neglect the fact that the conventions do not end with Java or Ruby on Rails. To achieve the most comprehensive approach to desired outcomes, software developers, users and lawmakers must strive for synchronicity.  

Here is where it gets interesting.  Without recourse to ethics, this approach may lead to colossal pitfalls of the modern era such as reified notions of the free market from the late eighteenth up to the turn of the last century or those catastrophic disasters of the the twentieth century committed in the name of Kantian or Marxist philosophies.  Ultimately we must ask ourselves, over and over again, is this “standard” a good or bad thing for society? 

Because the question is complex, so are the answers. Various stakeholders are likely to answer it differently keeping in mind their values and interests. Thus, what Facebook or Google – representing U.S. perspectives more broadly -- say regarding the use of personal information are at odds with how European regulators see it. (On that note, keep a watch for what comes to pass after the February 1 comes and goes without a new agreement on Safe Harbor.)  Or, for another example, why is it so laborious to get accessibility standards legally established when the benefit to users is clear?  Politics.  Packed into this term are a slew of others such as money, fear, confusion, bias and even the selfishness of a majority over a perceived minority.  My point?  In our efforts to synchronize standards we cannot get so caught up in the elegance of technology or standards or user interface as to neglect justice. 

Reader, you might be asking yourself: is she for or against standards?  From a macro view, I would reply as I have many times reflected on technology itself: standards are neither good nor bad, only thinking makes them so. From the micro view, one within contemporary political context, I lean toward the “for” side as you might have guessed in the previous blogs about privacy, security and accessibility. I also do not spit into the wind, which is to suggest that I think that in the long run it is all but inevitable that governing bodies will move towards the adoption of standards on these and other critical topics. But it also depends on what the standards are and for what problem are they attempting to address. All the more reason for us to be attentive to the processes by which they take shape and influence us. 

Code and standards have inherent sway because both are made by people. People, if you haven’t noticed, have a predilection for power, or at least that is what history teaches us. We would do ourselves a great disservice to forget those lessons as we look to code and standard formation. Standards are not just the business of technologists, or, for that matter, politicians. They sit at the juncture between technology and politics. That is why standards should be, citizens of the world, of concern to all of us. 



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