For a Global Constitution of Information

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Emanuel Pastreich:

"I propose that the first step in responding to the information crisis is the drafting of a global "Constitution of Information" that sets down concrete rules concerning the use of information and the maintenance of accuracy of information, thereby establishing a reliable system that is founded on a strong set of checks and balances to make sure that attempts to control information does not lead to even greater abuses.

Although the gathering and manipulation of information has become a major issue, the existing national constitutions on which we base our laws and our governance (in the United States or elsewhere) have little to say about this problem. Moreover, many of us have trouble grasping the seriousness of the information crisis: it remains largely invisible because it alters the very means by which we perceive the world.

We need to hold an international constitutional convention in which we can draft a binding global "constitution of information" that will address the consequences of the information revolution. It would be meaningless simply to propose a text for a constitution at this point because a living constitution is not a written text but rather an institution created through a series of negotiations and compromises. At this point we can only identify the need and the general issues that must be addressed within such a constitution and by institutions created by that convention.

Those who object to such a constitution of information as a dangerous form of centralized authority that will encourage abuse are not fully aware of the problems we already face. The abuse of information has already reached epic proportions and we are just at the doorstep of exponential increases.

In his dystopian novel 1984, George Orwell foresaw the dangers of a centralized clearinghouse for official propaganda named "The Ministry of Truth" in which the imperative to promote veracity is perverted into a factory for manufacturing fiction in the tradition of Stalin. The dangers of such a distortion of any attempt to rectify the tremendous amount of disinformation and misinformation in circulation should be foremost in our minds.

We are proposing a system that will bring accountability and institutional transparency to the institutions that are already engaged in the control, collection, and alternation of information. The point is to give an ethical imperative and a vision for the future. Failure to establish institutions like this constitution of information will not assure preservation of an Arcadian utopia, but rather will encourage the emergence of even greater fields of information collection and manipulation that are entirely beyond the purview of any institution. The result will be increasing manipulation of human society by shadowy and invisible forces for which no set of regulations has been established.

One essential assumption behind the constitution of information should be, following David Brin's argument in his book The Transparent Society (1998) that privacy will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to protect in the future in light of technological evolution. We must accept, paradoxically, that information must be made part of the public commons in order to preserve its integrity and its privacy. That is to say that simply protecting privacy will not be sufficient granted the overwhelming development of new technologies for gathering and altering information that will emerge in the years ahead.

Within a future constitution of information, and the institutions that it proposes, there must be a complex separation of powers wherein information is monitored, and its abuses controlled, or punished, according to a meticulous, painfully negotiated, agreement that follows the principles of transparency, accountability and the maintenance of a commons for the benefit of ordinary people. Information could be governed by three branches of government, something like the legislative, executive, and judicial systems that have served well in constitution-based governments following the proposals of Montesquieu for a tripartite system. The branches could be assigned different tasks and authorities within this system for monitoring information. The branches within government of information would have built into their mandates competing interests that would motivate them to limit the power of the other branches. Currently, there is little such balance of power within the global intelligence community or the large IT companies that have such influence globally.

For this reason, I suggest that as part of the three branches of government, a "three keys" system for the management of information be adopted. That is to say that sensitive information will be accessible -- otherwise we cannot assure that information will be accurate -- but that the information can only be accessed when the three keys are present that represent the three branches of the system. That process would assure that accountability can be maintained because three institutions whose interests are not necessarily aligned must be present to access that information.

The need to both assure privacy and to insure accuracy and reliability will require complex institutional changes and reinterpretations of the constitutional systems that exist already. But as we are already entering into a "post-constitutional" age in countries like the United States, it is imperative that we reaffirm the value of such public contracts so that to keep them from becoming mere ornaments.

The challenges of maintaining a balanced and reliable ecosystem for information cannot be dictated in a single article, but we can set the goal and start to bring together both practitioner and visionaries to put forth a direction and an encapsulation of the central tenets for a system based on transparency and accountability." (