Essays & conversations about constitutional moments on the Net collected by the Berkman Center.

Preface

We live in extraordinary times. For one billion of the six billion people on the planet, our lives are mediated by digital technologies. The way we use these technologies has a huge impact on many aspects of life in wired cultures around the world: how we do business, how we connect with one another, how we relate to institutions, how we participate in civic life, and so forth. Even in places where the Net barely reaches – places like Burma, North Korea, and Cuba – its influence is beginning to be felt. While individuals and groups have more autonomy and power in the networked age, so too do states and international bodies have new and different capacities to govern.

We use digital technologies in ways that are both constructive and disruptive. These technologies make it possible, for instance, for any citizen to speak her mind in a networked public sphere and to be heard by other people just about anywhere else in the world. While this freedom represents a revolution for human rights and democracy, it also makes the harm that her speech can cause much greater. Her speech might be defamatory; or it might be obscene, perhaps unfit for children to hear; or it might be disrespectful to the sovereign of a state far away from where she published it. That sovereign might want to keep anyone in his state from hearing her.

National and international disputes arise from everyday interactions online, like publishing text and video. Within states, people argue about how much to regulate interactions that are mediated by the Internet, like discussions in chat rooms, commercial transactions, and gambling. States are beginning to attack one another in the newly militarized zone of cyberspace. States fight over control of intellectual property that flows across national boundaries. Leaders get very exercised about the way that web site naming conventions and other technical protocols work and about the power of the institutions that manage them.

While the interactions between states and international bodies are paramount, their power knows limits online; their influence must occur alongside that of the companies, markets, and users that comprise the Net. The code and services offered by companies and the coordination provided by markets, have an enormous impact on how online life is governed—they create rules about what we can and cannot do. Those of us who spend a lot of time on the Net – netizens – ourselves are establishing norms that further govern our collective experience online. Groups form and disband quickly. Those that stick around can amass great capacity to include, empower, and exclude. The ability to govern activities online is not the exclusive province of the state, and the line between public and private action is getting blurrier, not clearer, as more of life moves into the networked public sphere.

The Net is in the midst of a constitutional moment that’s unusual, if not unique in world history. Our argument is that we are together participating in a series of constitutional moments, taking place all the time, all around the world. And unlike previous constitutional moments, such as the late eighteenth century in the United States, many more people have a means of shaping the outcome.

The Publius project intends to draw out and record for posterity the diverse voices of those participating in these rolling constitutional moments. We are publishing the arguments of those who are exploring these many processes of decision-making and governance online. Our goal is to illuminate our collective experience and to provide a forum for strong points of view to emerge. We want to shine light on the nuances at the margins of decision-making online. We mean to encourage the Internet community to provoke one another, to inform ourselves, and to listen to others with different experiences. In the process, it’s our goal to help empower individuals, groups, companies, states, and international bodies to work together for the common good, especially as these constitutional moments come in wave after wave, breaking all around us.

John Palfrey, Cambridge, MA, May 12, 2008