Dumbarton Oaks 2.0: The case for the internet to have its own United Nations

Dumbarton Oaks 2.0: The case for the internet to have its own United Nations
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In 1944, representatives from the United States, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union and the Republic of China met at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington D.C for the Washington Conversations on International Peace and Security Organization. The Dumbarton Oaks Conference set forth the framework for the United Nations, including the establishment of the General Assembly, the Security Council, the International court of justice and the office of the Secretariat. In the midst of the Second World War, the participating nations at Dumbarton Oaks recognized the need for cooperation amongst sovereign states in order to maintain world peace and tackle global problems.

In their own way, websites, including social media platforms, are their own nation-states in the Internet Age. Online entities have their own jurisdictions, users, terms and service policies, and moderators to determine whether content published to their forums adhere to internal policies. Facebook, for example, has about two billion worldwide users. The users must follow a set of guidelines that Facebook calls its “Community Standards.” If a user fails to abide by those standards, a user may face punishment, including expulsion from the service. As a private entity, Facebook retains the discretion to determine for itself whether online content is appropriate for its forum or not.

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In the United States, online entities are largely self-regulated and immune from liability for its decisions regarding whether to remove or restrict content on their websites. Self-regulation and legal immunity has spawned a range of responses from online entities. Some websites seek to be responsible actors, attempting to prevent their websites from being conduits for abusive content and harmful behavior. Other websites use their legal protected status to specifically cater to those users with malicious intent.

 

The collection of websites that form the internet are at a crossroads. Despite the best efforts of search engines, social media platforms, and individual websites, online harassment, fake news and hate speech remain pervasive problems. Twenty-five years after the first Internet browser became available, the internet struggles more than ever with how to promote the free exchange of ideas while protecting against dangerous and abusive content that takes advantage of the internet’s openness and ease of access.

The dangers posed by the internet cannot be minimized. Democracies are at stake, the right to privacy is being challenged, and terroristic and hateful ideologies are spreading. The knee-jerk reaction is to call for government regulation. In fact, there have already been increasing calls to regulate search engines and social media platforms as public utilities. However, any American government attempt to regulate internet content is not likely to survive a constitutional challenge.

As at Dumbarton Oaks in 1944, during the throes of WWII, addressing the difficult realities of the internet in 2018, requires search engines, social media platforms and individual websites to coalesce and establish their own United Nations like organization for the internet. We live in a global society and some issues, like global warming, pandemics and refugee migrations, require global cooperation. In the same vein, the internet cannot remain a set of disjointed and discrete websites that live in the isolation of cyberspace. The internet is ripe for cooperation and the establishment of more unified policies to address common threats and issues.

Consider what happens when websites have different definitions of what constitutes defamatory content, hate speech, or bullying. If the same content is posted to multiple platforms, one website may remove the content while another may not. The internet and its users would benefit from transparent, uniform and consistent policies and protocols that were known, anticipated and that would hold websites and social media platforms accountable for their action or inaction.

A multilateral institution specifically for internet entities would require substantial industry buy-in. To incentivize participation, search engine companies, such as Google and Microsoft, could require websites to join the organization as a condition of being indexed. In addition, advertisers and credit card companies could require those websites who want their advertising dollars or processing services to participate in the theorized United Nations for the internet. Ideally, as more websites join the organization, the more pressure would build for others to participate or at least adopt the agreed upon industry wide standards or best practices.

The conference at Dumbarton Oaks laid the groundwork for the United Nations. At the conference, the participating nations recognized that their cooperation would be pivotal for post-war peace and security. It is time for Dumbarton Oaks 2.0. The internet needs to recognize that the credibility of the industry to serve as a force for good is in peril. It is time that the industry come together and coalesce behind an institution that can build consensus on important issues and serve as a forum to discuss, debate and tackle the online challenges of today and tomorrow.

Andrew Bolson is the founder and president of the Privacy Initiative of New Jersey, an advocacy organization dedicated to protecting online safety and online privacy rights. He is also an attorney with Rubenstein, Meyerson, Fox, Mancinelli, Conte & Bern, P.A. in Montvale, New Jersey.