A Bill of Rights for the Internet of Things


Law might be enough. Standards might be fine. But we can arrive at a shared language of intent if we take some time to think about a Bill of Rights for the Internet of Things.

Now, there’s no distinct bill of rights for the Web. Instead, we have a loose coalition of laws and regulations, walled gardens and open systems, committees deciding how the Internet should be structured and politicians figuring out how to tax it.

It almost seems like a quaint notion that ‘online’ was this new and marvelous place that could somehow be governed by its own conventions and rules, its own society and culture.

Except of course that it is.

The Psuedo-Governments of the Web
Whether its the pseudo-democracy given to Reddit users or the pseudo-dictatorships of its moderators, the behavior police at Tumblr or the Game Gods at Facebook, we’re participating in social and cultural spaces where the rules and customs supersede geographic borders and where the power of the many is still at the mercy of the few. Just ask someone whose Facebook profile has been deleted unless they choose to grovel with passport in hand to be let back in.

And while there are huge swaths of the Web where we can vote with our feet and it doesn’t really make that much difference, there are other places where it really does.

For many people, their livelihoods depend on technologies and platforms where we don’t have much say if a sysadmin somewhere decides to delete our account or throw us onto a blacklist. Whether you sell on Amazon or look for a job on LinkedIn, you’re using services you depend upon and in exchange you’re signing off on the TOS of the “local government”.

It’s not unlike traveling, where you need to figure out the laws and customs of different countries – except that you’re on a fast train clicking its way along through EULAs and you’re sometimes not even sure whether you’ve crossed the border from one place to another.

The Company Town
A lot of the times we’re living in a new company town (with Facebook or LinkedIn as ‘the company’), under a form of moral paternalism:

“The model company town is concerned with creating a productive and prosperous company. Enlightened industrialists believed this could be achieved by providing a healthier residential environment for their employees. Planning a model company town involved the fusion of new notions of house design and layout. The paternalism of the enlightened industrialist was exhibited in his desire to provide an environment for his employees that was aesthetically appealing and which included well-designed residences, parks, schools, libraries and meeting halls. The industrialist also wished to contribute to his workers’ well-being by providing social programs such as sporting events and functions. This, however, highlights the power and immense control possessed by the company owner, who could shape the lifestyle and activities of his employees to serve his own interests and those of the company.”

Sub-in “community moderator” or “Silicon Valley executive” for “enlightened industrialist” and it has an eerie similarity.

Because what Internet company doesn’t claim to be providing aesthetically pleasing environments that are, in some way, trying to make a better world?

It’s a new industrial era, run by Boy Kings rather than someone’s grandfather, and they have their own ideas of what ‘well-being’ means.

Guideposts Forward on the Internet of Things
Law might be slow in keeping up with changes to the Web and doesn’t always have the reach it should as it tries to regulate a borderless Web. The casino site you’re running from Delaware might be illegal but is just fine if you’re in the UK.┬áBut coupled with best practices that emerge over time, the demands of commerce and competition, and consumer preference we can easily argue that the market will take care of everything and that law and policy will tend to intrude only when necessary.

But we’re at a tipping point on the Internet of Things. We’re about to see explosive growth of connected devices – from smart homes to smart sprinklers, from running shoes that talk to your phone to watches that monitor your heart beat.

And this Internet of Everything is being developed through standards and protocols, committees and entrepreneurs.

Right now, it’s mostly about making things smarter. But I’d propose that we’re at the very earliest stages of it being a lot more: of it being an entirely new world with a new culture and new ways to collaborate…..and new ‘Game Gods’ to go with it.

It seems to me that there are some monumental implications in the IoT….implications that go beyond the large, very visible elephants in the room of privacy and security and that verge into intent, purpose, and belief.

These beliefs and intents might be simple extensions of what came before: an object is an object, someone owns that object, and the law has pretty clear guidance on what ownership means.

But some of these beliefs and intents aren’t so clear. If an object is sentient and aware, if it’s partly open to the world around it, does it have a form of ‘rights’ embedded in it? Is it our intent on IoT that “if you CAN see something you should assume it wants to be seen”? Or should objects have the ‘right’ to signal their intent, and other objects should respect that intent whether they’re capable of doing something else or not?

Is it our intent (aside from what the law says) that users have a say if we decide to change the code of conduct or TOS for devices that might be monitoring their heart rate or fertility cycles? Or is it our intent that just because this data is more personal, we should still maintain the right as platform owners to change our policies at any time?

Is it our intent that data shared to one node on a network should be stripped of signals of intent as it’s passed along to other nodes in the network? Or should users have a ‘right’ to know that data is being tagged with initial intent and that devices won’t strip away this information?

Setting aside the law or privacy policies or system standards, these are questions of intent. They’re our collective or individual beliefs about what IoT should look like, and how the actors in it should be treated and behave.

These rights might be encoded as packets, they might be enshrined in law, but they’re mostly being determined by the people building the backbone of the Internet of Things. There’s an intent that’s underpinning its development. And even though that intent might be as varied as the number of start-ups doing the coding, it’s still an intent.

Do We Need a Bill of Rights for the Internet of Things?
A tweet from Raph Koster this morning had me thinking about his proposed Declaration of the Rights of Avatars…the somewhat odd idea (to outsiders) that characters in a virtual world still represented real people, and the Game Gods would probably be well advised to treat them as such.

Now, it was never meant to actually be a Bill of Rights (or at least, Raph acknowledged its limitations and the unlikelihood of it being adopted).

But what it DID do was generate a really amazing conversation. Because what Raph was doing was acknowledging that while there are laws and conventions and best practices and code, there was also the human dimension of digital communities. And that those communities were lacking a shared language for intent, belief and desire for rights.

Raph admitted that the reason a discussion of rights was needed was because of a slightly loopy logic:

  • Of paramount importance is the survival of the community.
  • Somebody who has his finger on the power switch can make the community go poof.
  • Ergo, keeping this guy happy is of paramount importance.
  • But if keeping him happy means letting him psychologically torture you, well, that means the community isn’t likely to survive.
  • And survival of the community is of paramount importance…

Which looks a lot to me like issues that will face these very early ecosystems built on IoT. If we get IoT wrong, the community goes ‘poof’. Right now, it might not seem matter that someone’s shoes won’t talk to their phone. But when someone starts connecting your car’s sensors to analysis of your Facebook feed or you’re using IoT data to try to save the wetlands and someone pulls the plug because they disagree with your politics you might not be so sure.

I’m inspired by Raph’s preamble:

“When a time comes that new modes and venues exist for communities, and said modes are different enough from the existing ones that question arises as to the applicability of past custom and law; and when said venues have become a forum for interaction and society for the general public regardless of the intent of the creators of said venue; and at a time when said communities and spaces are rising in popularity and are now widely exploited for commercial gain; it behooves those involved in said communities and venues to affirm and declare the inalienable rights of the members of said communities.”

And now wonder whether it shouldn’t be appended with another:

“…that when a time comes that objects have agency and exist as actors in a digital community, that we affirm that the objects too shall have rights, and the process by which people can append individual objects with instructions that make user intent clear shall be enshrined.”

It’s not just policy or law we need to decide. It’s not just protocols or coding conventions. It’s finding a shared language that acknowledges that people and objects are entering a new and unusual community together in which how we (both objects and people) intend for each other to be treated can be, at best, murky and unclear.

So let’s start talking about the rights of your toaster, of your thermostat and your shoes, and let’s think about what we intend to be the rights of users as they enter new company towns that looks a lot like the ones we currently live in….but is oh so much more.

[Update: See my follow-up post for more, along with some specific ideas for the rights of objects].

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