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gordon smith

This article is part of a series called The Future is Smart: How the Internet of things is changing business

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Gordon Smith is deputy chair of the Global Commission on Internet Governance and a distinguished fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation.

My new electric toothbrush has Bluetooth. No, it is not designed to change the colour of my teeth. Instead it transmits data about how long I have brushed, then it gives me from one to five stars and, normally, a smiley face.

Is there a problem if the manufacturer accesses that data for purposes of quality control? Probably not. But I would like to be asked first, and it would be nice if someone other than a lawyer could understand the consent page.

Should managers at my dental insurance company be able to access the data? Should I worry they might discover that sometimes I brush for only 90 seconds instead of the recommended three minutes? Maybe then they won't pay my dentist's bill to fill a cavity.

We are going headlong into a world of the "Internet of Things." In a few years, 50 billion devices may be connected to the Internet. We are increasingly dependent on the Internet for communications.

Despite this, Internet governance is still not a mainstream subject of debate. Yet the future of Internet governance is truly of vital importance. We need better Internet security resilience and stability. As we move into the Internet of Things, we users need to be confident that our Internet-enabled helpers are not working against us.

The issues are highly political with major economic implications. They are about power, in the words of the late American political scientist Harold Lasswell: "Who gets what, when and how?" How do we reach a consensus as a global society, where interests and values differ? The governance of the Internet has developed in an unplanned manner, with issues largely settled by the technical community. At first these engineers were predominantly American, although now they are increasingly global. Governments, corporations and civil society are intensely engaged. It did and does work.

The process is described as being "multistakeholder," meaning that companies and businesses, non-governmental organizations and private individuals have a say. Borders don't matter much at the technical level, but they do matter at the level of content. China and Russia, among others, want to be able to control what their citizens read and write.

With more people online, the time has come to think through what this means in terms of who gets what, when and how. You probably have data up there in the "cloud." Indeed you probably put it there to ensure your devices are synced. But is that data sufficiently protected from access by others?

It is not just a matter of data access but also data integrity. Crime is increasingly electronic. Why hold up a bank when you can break in to its computers and transfer money to yourself? Cybercrime is estimated to cost $450-billion a year.

Consider the rapid development of cyberwar capabilities. Will deterrence work in the cyberfield as it has (so far) in the nuclear field? Can norms be developed to constrain such development or use?

A social compact is an agreement, usually implicit, among the members of a society to co-operate for social benefits, for example, by sacrificing some individual freedom for state protection. Such an agreement gives legitimacy to those in authority. It depends on trust – the kind that suffered a blow with the revelations of National Security Agency secrets leaker Edward Snowden.

The Global Commission on Internet Governance, at its April meeting in The Hague, advanced the idea that a new social compact is required on digital privacy and security. The commission brings together people from a wide variety of backgrounds to develop the idea of a social compact for the Internet.

You can read about the social compact at and decide what it means for you. Then let governments and businesses know what you need from them, to trust the Internet.

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