[This week’s Communications column for the Vanuatu Independent.]

Here is the ocean, vast and wide, teeming with life of every kind, both large and small. See the ships sailing along, and Leviathan, which you made to play in the sea.” – Psalm 104

In 1651, an Englishman named Thomas Hobbes used the metaphor of the powerful, even unassailable aquatic giant of biblical lore to present the concept of the commonwealth. If we live as individuals, caring only for ourselves, he said, our lives could only be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

But if people can find their way to compromise with one another, to accept that respecting mutual rights is better for one and all, a person could “be contented with so much liberty against other men as he would allow other men against himself.” Hobbes contended that this commonwealth of like-minded people becomes strong enough to be unassailable – or at least better able to defend itself than any individual ever could. Leviathan emerges where only shoals of darting, frightened minnows existed before.

The Internet lends itself very well to such imagery. Individually, we are tiny minnows awash in a vast, sometimes unfriendly sea of information. Acting alone, we can find some good in it, but we are largely defenceless against the greater forces at work. If we join forces with our like-minded brethren, though, we can achieve great things. Not the least of these is a degree of safety, comfort and predictability in how we experience the Net.

Sometime very soon, Vanuatu’s Internet marketplace is going to be liberalised. The approach will be similar to that used to bring competition into the mobile telephony market. But there are a few significant differences….

Perhaps most important, the number of Internet providers won’t be arbitrarily limited. License applications are being considered according to a standard set of technical criteria, meaning that the number of potential Internet Service Providers is limited only by the number of companies who successfully apply.

This means that there needs to be a set of rules in place – a contract if you like – to ensure that everybody providing Internet services plays nicely together. We also need to make sure that customers who want to use local Internet resources can do so in a predictable and consistent manner. Whether we’re obtaining an email address, setting up a website, or just downloading files, we need to know that we’ll be treated fairly, respectfully and professionally.

Until now, TVL’s Internet service provision has been guided by common sense and its own good judgement. As far as anyone I’ve spoken with knows, there’s never been any outside effort made to formalise the way TVL administers our shared Internet resources. These include the addresses we need in order for our computers to talk to one another, Vanuatu-specific domain names and the data flows themselves.

Before going any further, it should be emphasised that TVL has done a perfectly adequate job of managing these resources for themselves and their customers. But once others are involved, we’ll need to approach things differently. It won’t do to have one competitor controlling access to the very Internet domains and addresses that everyone will be sharing.

So, whatever TVL’s past performance, we need to build a new set of rules.

The Internet’s a funny thing. In many ways, it reflects important aspects of the world around us. As far as that goes, defining a workable set of rules of behaviour doesn’t differ significantly from the way we approach policy-making in government and society.

But the Internet differs from the material world in a couple of fundamental ways. First of all, it’s entirely man-made. Government, the world economy and society are all, to some degree, a reaction of humanity to the range of environments it inhabits. In other words, there are some things we just can’t change about the world we live in. We just have to adjust to them as best we can and move on.

Not so with the Internet. Where it’s concerned, we can fiddle with pretty much every aspect of it. Of course, changing some parts of it could effectively break it. Let’s say we here in Vanuatu wanted to alter the way domain names work, we could do that, but we’d have to accept that we’d be running against a very strong international current. Odds are that nobody else would want to play along. That would leave us with a functioning local system, but the rest of the world would be blind to these new domains.

And that brings us to a crucial aspect of this particular Leviathan: the commonwealth of data and human interaction that we call the Internet is exactly what we decide we want it to be, but if we can’t agree, then it’s nothing at all.

Contrast that with the way governments normally work: They often make every effort get along with their neighbours, but the bottom line is that, within their geographical boundaries, they make the rules.

Furthermore, because the Internet is an entirely technical construct, it’s really difficult to say where the technical bits end and the human bits begin. An example: In the real world, we have laws against theft. We all know what that means: If you take something that doesn’t belong to you, you will be punished. Simple as that.

But on the Internet, there are no ‘things’. It’s convenient for us to say that this picture is ‘mine’ and that music file is ‘yours’, but once we start digging down, we quickly realise that ownership means something different in the online world. If you make a copy of my photo, have I really lost anything at all?

On the Internet, theft means what we decide it means. And usually, definitions like ‘theft’ or ‘ownership’ are arrived at by consensus within the community. Most people, for example, have decided that sharing television shows and movies online is okay, despite what Hollywood thinks. By creating software that makes sharing easier and avoiding that which more closely fits the desires of the big media companies, the Internet population has effectively voted for what it wants.

Internet domain names and addresses, along with the data flowing in and out of our country, are all sovereign resources. This means that the government and the people of Vanuatu have a right to decide how they operate. But the Internet is a bit of a messy place. There are no clear borders.

Once we begin to look at how everything fits together, we discover that our online environment is global in nature, notionally ruled over by a hodge-podge of national and international laws, but effectively controlled more by programmers than legislators. The geeks who keep the machines running work largely by consensus. They are very conscious of their role within the online commonwealth.

Ultimately, the Internet is what we all agree it should be. It is a state that’s defined more by its technical conventions than it is by law. So if we want to change things, we need to understand that our ability to act is determined by the rest of the world’s willingness to accommodate our desires, and by our own technical ability.

The commonwealth we create for ourselves with Vanuatu’s Internet resources will no doubt reflect much of the spirit of cooperation and community that is central to our culture. We need government assistance in a few particular areas, but we need to be clear that our corner of the Internet is but a small part of an immense Leviathan, a commonwealth of code encircling the entire globe.