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Constellations of Trust and Distrust in Internet Governance

Author: Hofmann, J.
Published in:
Year: 2015
Type: Working paper

Trust typically becomes an issue when we find it wanting. In Internet governance, it was the disclosure of mass surveillance that has drawn new attention to trust as a crucial resource of engagement and collaboration. But what exactly is trust? Public discourse tends to create a binary understanding that portrays trust as a positive and distrust as a negative thing. This article challenges this view by suggesting that trust and distrust co-occur and that distrust can be a productive source of institution-building. It will be argued that modern constitutions are examples of how distrust towards the abuse of power has been transformed into generalized trust. Democracies are able to generate basic cultures of trust by institutionalizing the fear of its abuse. Normative certainty, reliable mechanisms of accountability and the enforcement of rights, duties and responsibilities are among the conditions conducive to the development of general trust in governance arrangements. Internet governance, characterized by a constitutional framework still in its infancy, faces the challenge to generate the specific conditions itself for creating generalized trust in its institutions.The first section of this paper discusses concepts of trust with implications for the political sphere. The second section illuminates the sphere of Internet governance from a trust perspective. The third section briefly describes the crisis of confidence in Internet governance caused by Edward Snowden's revelations about mass surveillance on the Internet. This crisis of confidence serves as the empirical background for two scenarios sketching out potential trajectories in Internet governance. Referring to Albert Hirschman's concept of voice and exit, the first scenario assumes that a significant loss of trust facilitates a process of constitutionalization of Internet governance while the second suggests that the decline of trust accelerates a gradual fragmentation of the Internet.

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