Joi Ito

Joi Ito is the director of the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
He is interviewed in person by Jegan Vincent de Paul on August 14, 2012

Jegan Vincent de Paul (JVDP): I want to get at the underlying code by which technological entities (particularly those of Silicon Valley) and political entities (particularly those of Washington, DC) operate in relation to each other.

And see if their codes of conduct are mutual or in contradiction, as far as producing necessary change and progress within the United States. The Stop Online Piracy Act and The PROTECT IP Act boycotts by Google, Wikipedia and others, was a glimpse into the possibility of increased conflicts.

Can you talk a little bit about the role of Silicon Valley technology today in relation to Washington policy for a healthy and open democracy?

Joi Ito: (JI) The important thing about Silicon Valley, at least in its current form, is that its based on the internet and the internet is a philosophy more than anything else. And the philosophy is really the ability to innovate without asking permission. If you think about the history of the internet back in the Al Gore, Ira Magaziner days, the White House and the FCC [Federal Communications Commission] were a very kind of open community and they made a very deliberate decision at the birth of the internet to keep it open and not regulate it and to try to allow commerce to happen. So they didn’t tax ecommerce at the beginning and there was a whole bunch of things that the US government did to try to spur innovation on the internet by not regulating it. It turns out that was a real success and that’s why the United States led the world in innovation around the internet while Europe and Japan fell behind because they regulated it a little bit more at the beginning. What you see in Silicon Valley is really a kind of an open innovation and competition, which causes disruption with incumbents.

Washington is about lawmaking and about regulation and what you see in SOPA and PIPA is the wishes of those incumbents in Hollywood and other places who really think their rights should be protected through regulation and who don’t necessarily want to find disruptive technical innovation. It really is the regulators versus the innovators struggling. Having said, the facebooks and googles they all also try to get monopolies in certain areas, but its through technical standards. For instance if you read Lessig’s [Lawrence Lessig] book called Code, where he describes software code being very similar to law, that it determines what you can and can’t do; and the architecture of the computer networks and the systems also is very much a definition like policy is about what you can and can’t do . The difference is that the people in Silicon Valley set standards around technology without having to deal with Washington, whereas Washington does it through laws and legislation. I do think that regulatory – I am biased because I am very pro-internet and pro-open innovation – [bodies] are trying to use legal policy and regulations for the bulk of the things that we are trying to do on the internet. It doesn’t really work because the internet is an open system that involves the rest of the world and the technical standards are much more important to what you can and can’t do on the internet than any laws can be. The laws tend not to be very effective on regulating the internet.

JVDP: With cases like the suppression of Megaupload – it is increasingly obvious that Washington, almost by default, supports big content producers like the Motion Picture Association of America and views with suspicion new models of internet based-distribution.

Do you think Washington’s current outlook on protecting intellectual property works against open sharing and production of content by individuals and small groups?

JI: I don’t think I am being radical in suggesting that money influences Washington. The GE lobby affects the way that Washington writes its tax code and Hollywood definitely affects the way Washington thinks about IP. These older traditional incumbents dependent on the mechanism of lobbying and lawmaking for protecting themselves, whereas newer models like the startups and techno-companies tend to work on markets and competition, and technical standards.

I do think that if you think about the percentage of overall content that’s held by the commercial sort of lobbying efforts and the overall amount of content that is on the internet or that’s available, it does represent a fairly small percentage of overall content. So if you design the network to protect a few percent of the content, you definitely are impinging on the ability for other people to share and build on top of each other and many people like educators and armatures want to share.

At Creative Commons, where I am chair of the board, we’re really trying to find a way for everyone to be able to protect their own rights but to be able to make legal choices in the way they would like to share and we’re trying to support a spectrum of ways of sharing. What’s interesting is that if you look at the technical layer and some of the more sophisticated legal layers, there are ways for Hollywood to be able to protect what they do, but also allow other people to share.

It’s a little bit more sophisticated and a little bit more complicated than just going out and just banning everything. Having said that, some of the more sophisticated people in the MPAA or the RIAA – the record association the motion picture association – in those communities have come out on the side of Creative Commons saying that we should allow everyone to have a choice. Hollywood should be able to protect its rights, amateurs should be able to share their rights, educators should be able to share their rights, and its really a slightly more radical fringe of the Hollywood IP community that’s pushing for these more extreme measures.

I almost equate it to sort of terrorism where you have the extremists fighting each other whereas the majority of the people are kind of moderate. What’s unfortunate is that every time we overthrow this current battle, the extremists seem to come in. So you will find that even some of the people who used to be very much on the copyright protection side like WIPO [World Intellectual Property Organization], they are not even being included in these conversations. For instance with ACTA, which is the anti-copyright and trademark treaty, they kind of have started to go more and more fringe. So this battle will continue, but more and more people are becoming moderate. So my hope is that the moderate voice will start to dominate the conversation overall.

JVDP: Facebook is encouraging organ donations. What are you thoughts on social media companies like Facebook openly entering into domains that are traditionally part of activism or government?

JI: I think it’s interesting. I don’t have a very strong view, it’s an interesting experiment – but do you know the book by Rebecca MacKinnon, called the Consent of the Networked? What she is riffing on is John Locke and the consent of the governed, and she is saying that these network providers now have such a monopoly on conversation that they need to behave more and more like a governing body that has the ability to influence a population – and the people who are on that network should have more rights. It’s an interesting way to look at the social networks. So it’s interesting to see corporations take positions on somewhat political or activist issues, but I do think it’s dangerous for any platform to take positions in either direction. When you get into hundreds of millions of users, the relationship between those users and the platform is going to evolve where the platform has to be much more responsible.

If you look at companies like Yahoo! and Google who have suffered from being dragged in front of Congress and beaten up for leaking human rights information and talking to governments, they are now much more careful about those things and some of the newer players like Facebook, who haven’t gone through that process yet, seem not to understand the boundaries. So as these networks mature, they become a little bit more sophisticated and a little more risk aversive.

JVDP: A related area is that of Transparency and privacy. In your collectively edited text Emergent Democracy, you state:

“It is essential to understand the difference between personal privacy and transparency. While individuals have a right to privacy, powerful institutions must operate transparently, so that abuses of power are not concealed by veils of secrecy.”

What is the role of densely connected digital networks maintained by a small number of technology companies in protecting privacy and encouraging transparency compared to methods put forth by law makers.

JI: Both lawmakers and companies right now are probably not on the right side of this argument. It’s a complicated issue right now. The lawmakers are not well tuned into the technical issues – and it’s a complicated issue – and the companies are not yet incentivized enough to make the right decision around privacy, because the people don’t yet understand what they want and what they need, because the pain hasn’t happened.

The way that the internet and the network evolve is kind of like an immune system of a human body. It gets pain, it gets sick and figures out how to recover. So if you think about spam – and spam was terrible for a while – a lot of people said we need to shut down the internet, we need to fix the network, but after a while commercial providers started to provide solutions and eventually you don’t worry about spam anymore.

Similarly privacy is pretty bad now, but people haven’t died and people haven’t felt the pain yet. Once we start to feel the pain, especially in really fundamental things like free speech, people will realize they need the privacy and once the users demanded it, the companies have to change their policy to be much more protective of privacy. My prediction on privacy is that its going to get worse and we’ll feel a lot of pain, but eventually that pain will cause the users to push for privacy and the system will evolve to be more cognizant of that. I do think that there are a lot of technologies out there where people are designing to protect privacy. But I don’t think they will be actively deployed until the users wanted it and the users won’t want it until they feel the pain.

JVDP: The State Department and White House’s reactions to Wikileaks shows that Washington could be against the kind of transparency allowed by new network technologies.

Do you think the hostility comes from specific materials being revealed or a more general fear of new forms of communication that cannot be controlled by law or force?

JI: I think its fear. It’s a misunderstanding, because Wikileaks happened and the real risk now is – just like a lot of the elements of the war on terror – is there is going to be some over reaction to that and all of the bills and court cases that are starting to come out now are going to impinge on the ability for journalism to work. Because the risk is that you destroy investigative journalism in the process of getting rid of the next Wikileaks, but actually you can’t get rid of the next Wikileaks; its going to happen anyway. So the risk right now is that you don’t get rid of the problem, but you get rid of everything good around it. There is a lot collateral damage. This is also a lot of what happens with things like national ID systems that try to go after the criminals. What you’re doing is losing privacy for everybody else, and the bad guys are going to have technology that bypasses those tricks. I don’t think you’re going to ever stop the next Wikileaks, because technically it’s almost impossible. But what you will do is stop the legitimate journalists who are trying to do investigative journalism. There is this bill trying to make its way to law right now, which will prevent journalists from being allowed to talk to any government officials except for the director of the intelligence community, and that’s ridiculous. So I think this over reaction is tremendously harmful.

JVDP: Lastly, I want to talk a little bit about minority rights and majority rule.  An increasingly networked society also means more participation and perhaps even greater consensus by a large number of people. Could this lead to minority voices being considered noise and not amplified?

JI: Yes there definitely is that risk. It’s important where society cuts of minority versus outlying noise. Journalism can play a role in trying to amplify the voices of the minority and protect the minority against majority rule. It’s really tricky because there is this balance also of this kind of strange minority, which is the wealthy minority, with Super PACS and things like that. For me, really reinforcing the role of traditional journalism and investigative journalism supported by citizen media and trying to figure out a way to make people more politically and socially literate is a key element. It’s a difficult one. For instance I am on the board of the Knight Foundation and we are trying to fund a lot of new ideas and new startups in the area of journalism, but it really is this kind of new media literacy more than anything else; because votes matter less than voice. In a funny way, if the people’s voices get out and the stories get out then people will start to understand. The problem that we have right now is that most of the public is misinformed, so regardless of anything there, they are making the wrong choices. Things like online communities have allowed deliberation and allowing amplification of conversations in a diverse setting is really important. There are a lot of good ideas of how to do it, but I don’t think we’ve figured it out yet.

JVDP: Google developed under a policy of “don’t be evil”.  Compared to Washington politicians, are individuals in large institutions like Google thinking politically about questions fundamental to democracy and human rights in the twenty first century in relation to their services?

JI: They maybe at some level, but they must do it more. There is a great story again, with Lawrence Lessig in his book Code, which basically says that code is law and that by writing code you are enabling or disabling certain types of behavior and a lot of developers went to Larry and said I don’t want to be political and he said too bad you are. As a developer you are making political decisions when you at Facebook turn on the ability for people to see everyone else’s friends and their groups, you’ve suddenly destroyed the privacy of social networks for activists in Syria and Iran. And that’s an extremely political decision even if you didn’t think it. So I think they have to be more aware than they are today. Some of them are. But fundamentally it needs to be really brought to the attention of leadership and it is people like Rebecca MacKinnon. And interestingly, a lot of people in Washington are starting to have an understanding between global policy and the code that is inside our services and we don’t really have a good way to force that kind of responsibility. It’s the role of the public and the role of the people who make media and it needs to be much more focused on.

[END] Interview conducted by Jegan Vincent de Paul with sound recoding by Yae Jin Shin

This interview of Joi Ito was conducted as part of Compare and Contrast: Codes of Conduct, a project by Jegan Vincent de Paul commissioned by ZERO1 and curated by Regina Moller with support from the National Endowment for the Arts.

For further information about this project please see:
http://www.zero1biennial.org/jegan-vincent-de-paul