Fighting for a free internet

June 1, 2018 - 12:00am -- Susanne R Janssen

Fighting for a free internet
Fadi Chehadé is a specialist concerned about security — and says it’s not too late to fix things. How can we govern our virtual world?

By Susanne Janssen

The Internet started as a great opportunity: connect with people from all over the world and have the knowledge of entire centuries at your fingertips. But by now, its possibilities change our lives and the way we interact with our neighbors. It can even threaten our democracy, when other entities can influence elections with algorithms developed by artificial intelligence.

Fadi Chehadé is a specialist in internet governance. As former CEO of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), he worked to expand that nonprofit organization responsible for coordinating the maintenance and security of the internet’s logical infrastructure, convincing more than 100 nations to join in.

Now, after two terms as CEO and presently working with another company, Chehadé is still restlessly working for the good governance and security of the digital world.

“We need to create the framework for a transnational regulatory system,” he says. “The next two or three years are crucial in order to prevent misuse and manipulation.”

Strong words, but he is still optimistic. “It is a challenge and we need to work fast.” He says that our national and international regulatory systems were not designed for the speed of internet technology and its cross-border nature, “but we are working on it.”

He cannot unveil more details, but he sees some promising developments: “It will be almost like a new UN-like system, inclusive of governments, businesses and civil society, just for digital world. And questions to discuss and resolve are out there in abundance: who owns the data collected on the internet? The company? The user of a network? The government?”

One internet for the world
Regulating internet was and is not easy: “I prayed a lot,” Chehadé shares. He needed major power players to agree on his plan to keep the internet open and undivided. “At ICANN, we did not deal with what is on the Internet nor how it is used, but how it functions,” he says.

The unique control of the U.S. government was especially difficult to resolve, since the internet was started here. He had to reassure other countries like Brazil or China and continue to work to keep one internet for the world.

He treasured the fact that he was involved in the Focolare in his formative years and got to know Focolare founder Chiara Lubich’s dream of a united world. “That training was so important. It gave me the vision that unity is possible, and so I was able to bring people together to talk, for example when the Germans were determined to build a European Internet.”

It is not always smooth sailing. Some countries filter content. “If a government feels powerless, it can do very reactionary things,” says Chehadé.

During Chehadé’s tenure at ICANN, 160 governments have signed up and have agreed to meet and try to come up with rules.

Is the internet a blessing or a curse?
“It is being used for the good,” affirms Chehadé, and he lists all the possibilities that we have grown accustomed to. Sure, there are abusive incidents and mistakes, “but there are fantastic uses of data collections.”

Data of drug dosage over 10 years, for example, help people in critical conditions. “When you have data of 4,000 people who suffer from the same condition, a doctor can look up which drug worked under which conditions and make a better decision.”

Clearly, in health issues it depends on how far one person wants to let AI influence their lives. “A smart watch can measure your heart rate and monitor your lifestyle, for example, as to whether your food choices interfere with the drugs that your doctor prescribed. People could get upset and say, ‘Now the doctor even knows what I had for dinner yesterday,’ but it would be beneficial for your health.”

Chehadé adds another example. “Drones flying over the rainforest could spot through sound and particles in the air when a tree is being illegally chopped and report it to the environmental department.” A sensor in a river, he explains, would report where and when it’s time to fish without disturbing the ecosystem.

Who gets access to all this data?
“Good question!” Chehadé says. After a person agrees to having his or her health data monitored by AI, who owns that data? The company that developed the algorithm? The doctor? What happens with all these data in the future?

“The world is becoming exponentially more connected. By 2030, estimates are that 100 trillion things will be connected to the internet. We have to face these questions now,” he states.

And he expects more changes in the future: “Data will be cheap and abundant. What is valuable is what you do with it. Machines will consume the data, and they could make the decisions. We have to think about protocols and decision-making processes, otherwise an AI lab will reach the point of having machines make decisions for us with no frame of reference on good practices for the public good.”

Still, Chehadé is optimistic that humanity can get ahead of the problem: “We need to work together and create a distributed, multi-stakeholder cooperation system almost like a UN for the 21st century — where questions should be addressed.

“Think of AI monitoring the medications being administered to a seriously ill patient. Based on the data, they might decide to switch to palliative care without the patient even knowing it. We have to set it up the right way. Whoever controls the machine will have enormous power,” he says. As an aside, he mentions that China is in a race to assemble the largest AI team on the planet.

Calling for a “technocratic oath”
It’s still up to human beings to determine the rules. Chehadé thinks that every engineer and scientist should take an oath, equivalent to the Hippocratic Oath that doctors take. “I see it as a technocratic oath to safeguard the data and machine decisions entrusted to me.”

The clock is ticking, however. In 20 years it will be too late: “We could easily miss the boat,” he says. Machines are not yet able to build and program other machines, but we might not be very far from that. Some existential questions need to be defined, otherwise “we might look back and see the negative impact on all the beautiful things we had.”

These risks do not prevent him from seeing the positive impact that the internet and AI have: “I believe that connecting people is ultimately good. It might upset us and change a lot of things we rely on, but we should never forget the possibilities it gives us.”

This is the reason why he fights for a free internet, with a clear and open infrastructure, and works to get important players to the table to talk about the future.

In our present moment — with algorithms now meddling in elections — it might be the time to reinvent democracy, but first and foremost, to discover how to make decisions together for the good of humanity. 


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