The Verge pointed out in a blog post today a new service from one of my favorite websites, Docracy (a website that takes a GitHub approach to drafting contracts? How could that not be a straight shot to my heart?). I hadn’t heard of the service yet, and it fits neatly into a series of posts [1, 2, 3] that Rob, Matt, and I wrote around a month ago. As The Verge details, the service scrapes a large number of terms of service every day, stores them, and highlights changes.
The Verge sees the opportunity here for people to catch companies who silently change the terms that bind their users, and that’s true. This service, though, can also serve to help the competition in terms of service that we were discussing in our previous blog posts. Companies that are proud of their terms should start linking to their page at Docracy to show that they will be transparent about how and when their ToS change.
Any companies that wanted to take it to the next level could use Docracy as a collaborative space to design changes to the terms alongside their users, allowing them to propose changes and discuss their impact. The end result would clearly not necessarily be the result of that collaboration, but companies that even went so far as to have the discussion would get plenty of points with discriminating users.
Clearly the Internet isn’t fundamentally necessary to the sort of competition we like to talk about here on a regular basis, but there can be no doubt that a free and open Internet with low barriers to entry encourages the sort of business approaches that lead to disruptions in markets. That’s why so many of the companies we talk about here are Internet related, and why we have been closely tracking the ITU’s World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT).In fact, I was there for the past two weeks as a part of the United States Delegation (these thoughts are my own, of course, and I’m not speaking for the US government), and blogged here at DisCo about some of the proposals a while ago.
The WCIT was a forum for the UN’s International Telecommunications Union to review one of its underlying treaties, the International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs). The ITRs were written in 1988 and addressed low level questions of interconnection between international telephone and telegraph networks, including such details as who should pay who. This year, however, the ITU called a conference to update that treaty and some governments saw it as a chance to achieve what they had so far been unable to do: gain more control over the workings of the Internet. For a great behind-the-scenes look at what happened at WCIT, check out Eli Dourado’s summary over at Ars Technica from yesterday.
The final treaty text has a few provisions that cause concern for competition on the Internet. Mostly they give license to countries that already are looking for ways to control content on the Internet. For example, the treaty now has language on spam and cybersecurity in it, both of which clearly address the question of content of communications. We also gave you an update during the conference on the Internet-related provisions in the treaty. When governments get tacit permission to start toying with traffic across the network based on its contents, all sorts of evils become possible.
The Internet is such a great force for disruption because it is flat and open. Gatekeepers are not able to keep out smaller competitors, which forces all the parties to work to make a better product instead. When governments have international blessing to start investigating the contents of communications, they start picking winners and losers and disruption is often sacrificed.
That’s why it was great to see the US and many other nations refuse to sign the resulting document. While not a perfect resolution to the conference, the US government did a lot to keep the worst of the worst out of the treaty. Still, vigilance on this topic is of the utmost importance. The WCIT was just one battle in an ongoing war between those who prefer governments to control everything on the Internet and those who believe in an open and free exchange of ideas. We will be there to fight those future battles and we hope the Internet community will be too.
Ars Technica reported earlier this month that Bitcoin, the open source cryptographically secured alternate currency, was back to trading at 9 US dollars per bitcoin. The currency had experienced a bubble last year, trading as high as almost 30 USD before crashing spectacularly. Since then, however, it has regained stability and traded within a fairly small range around 5 USD. If Bitcoin can keep its stability, what might it mean for disruptive competition?