|Global Networks and Local Values|
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It is described alternatively as the "third wave," the "information revolution," or the "virtually connected world." Whatever the rhetoric used to capture the impact of information technology in general and global networks in particular, it leads inevitably to the assertion that these developments will have a profound and increasing impact on individual life, social communities, commerce, and government. But what kind of impact and how, specifically, will it occur? For some it appears to be a set of risks and threats. For others, it amounts to almost unbounded opportunity.
Both assertions may have elements of truth. Opportunities and risks are twins. Unfortunately, because most discussions of the likely effects have been rather general and conjectural, there has been little basis for judging either the optimism of the technophiles or the pessimism of the technophobes. Where opportunities are concerned, conjecture and uncertainty have few negative consequences; the ingenuity of creative people, the workings of the market, and the acceptance by society of useful new tools will determine soon enough which technological applications will find a place in our lives and in what ways. The risks are another matter. It is important to try to anticipate the social effects of a new technological development in order to understand what tools and strategies might be used to reduce the risks or minimize the negative impacts.
The societal implications of new information technologies have not been universally welcomed. Most nations, including both fundamentalist and dictatorial nations as well as liberal democracies that tend to have high respect for personal freedom, have individual values that may be threatened by new information technologies. For example, in 1996 the Bavarian Attorney General forced CompuServe to ban a couple of newsgroups on issues of homosexuality that were perfectly legal in California. Similarly, some types of Nazi propaganda that would be criminally prosecuted in Germany are constitutionally protected as free speech in the United States.
Local governments have traditionally been responsible for countermeasures against information regarded as socially harmful. However, today's global telecommunications may constrain the options available to governments for controlling information, limit the effectiveness of old policy tools, and make it more difficult for governments even to understand or identify the values held by the populace at large. Governments might lose considerable ability to influence or preserve values that are different from those elsewhere in the world, or even to manage regional differences within their own boundaries.
Many questions regarding social organization arise. To what extent is it possible to organize power along territorial lines in a world of global telecommunications? What new loci of power and influence are made possible? To what extent do global telecommunications enable power to be organized around personal interests rather than geographically based or limited communities? What is the impact of such organization on social development? How will the roles of government and of society change as a result of global networks? Will all governments--or even all democratic governments--change in the same way? Are there scenarios in which governments may use the power of networks to enhance their power?
To address some of the issues related to the impact of global networks on local values, the German-American Academic Council asked for a study in this area. In response, the U.S. National Research Council established a committee in accordance with its usual procedures. The German delegation, under the auspices of the German Max-Planck-Project Group on Common Goods, Law, Politics, and Economics, were intimately involved in all aspects of the development of this report (participating in meetings, writing, and so on), but were not formally approved as NRC committee members.
A comparison of Germany and the United States was thus appropriate for two reasons. The procedural reason is that the expertise of the committee members was more concentrated on these two nations than on others, and that it was the German-American Academic Council that asked for the study. The substantive reason is that Germany and the United States have many important similarities (e.g., a well-developed information-technology infrastructure and a commitment to democracy and the rule of law) and many important differences as well (e.g., differing values that each nation wishes to uphold). For this reason, this report is structured around an exploration of the potential impacts of global telecommunications on values of Germany and the United States--specifically some of the values associated with democracy, privacy, freedom of information, and free speech.
In carrying out its study, the Committee to Study Global Networks and Local Values met for the first time in the spring of 1998 and six more times (including two symposia described below) to deliberate. The symposia were integral to the study, as they involved speakers from a range of disciplines and helped to expose the committee to a much broader range of input and perspectives than what was represented by committee expertise. In this role, the speakers served admirably. (Individually authored papers from these symposia can be found online at <http://www.mpp-rdg.mpg.de/dresden1.html> for Symposium 1 and at <http://www.mpp-rdg.mpg.de/woodsh.html> for Symposium 2. These papers are also available in hard copy.1 )
PURPOSE OF THIS REPORT
This report focuses on the relationship between global information networks and political, economic, and cultural institutions and norms, which, in aggregate, are referred to as "local values." The study has examined the effect of global networks on the ability of individual nations and communities to protect or perpetuate indigenous values and systems, and it has examined the policy approaches available, at least in the United States and Germany, to achieve those ends--that is, to alter, control, or otherwise affect the local impact of information networks.
This report is intended to help policymakers understand the issues, how they are linked to one another, and how action targeting one problem or issue can have effects--oftentimes unintended--on others. It combines positive and normative analyses. The positive analysis--describing and explaining the current situation, attempting to predict likely development paths and their future effects, and forecasting the consequences of regulatory actions--aims at making clear what the present and potential problems are. The normative analysis--assessing the seriousness of the problems, making judgments on whether they require societal action, and, if so, commenting on what the course of action might be--emphasizes the different levels and the range of formal and informal structures, institutions, and policies available to deal with the problems identified. Furthermore, the report recognizes that legislators and the traditional political structures are not the only institutions that societies depend on to deal with perceived problems. A host of less formal political institutions and actors can, at times, be more effective, as they have been in much of the development of global networks that has already occurred. Therefore, the analysis in this report is not directed exclusively to traditional policy-makers, but is also intended for professional groups, commercial institutions, nongovernmental organizations, and the broad array of other entities that make up civil society.
Finally, it is worth noting that the report does not make specific policy recommendations. Rather, it offers insights that the committee hopes will be useful to policymakers in thinking about critical decisions.
The committee wishes to express its gratitude to the participants in the two symposia, whose contributions were critical for helping the committee to better understand the issues. Staff of the Max-Planck-Project Group on Common Goods, Law, Politics, and Economics and the U.S. National Research Council's Computer Science and Telecommunications Board provided helpful support, both logistically and intellectually.
Most importantly, the U.S. and German delegations to the committee acknowledge each other for a willingness to overcome their cultural differences and work through the misunderstandings that often characterize multinational study teams. At first, a common vocabulary and working style seemed to elude the committee. But over time and with patience, committee members from the two delegations were able to work out a rough consensus on important concepts and definitions. (Indeed, at times the process of deliberation was self-reflective--some of the issues discussed in this report played out during the committee process.)
The committee also thanks the German-American Academic Council (GAAC) for making this project possible, noting in particular the help of Dr. Rolf Hoffmann and Dr. Johannes Belz in facilitating interactions between the committee and the GAAC.
1 Christoph Engel and Kenneth H. Keller, eds., 2000, Understanding the Impact of Global Networks on Local Social, Political and Cultural Values," Law and Economics of International Telecommunications, Vol. 42, Baden-Baden: Nomos; Christoph Engel and Kenneth H. Keller, eds., 2000, Governance of Global Networks in the Light of Differing Local Values, Law and Economics of International Telecommunications, Vol. 43, Baden-Baden: Nomos.