The Internet is a contested space. Just like any place in the physical world, if it is left unguarded, someone will assert control over it.
While cyberspace is often idealized as a transnational and anarchic mode of communication, increasingly, different nations want a role in governing and policing it. This contest for control of the Internet is a topic of discussion at the U.N.’s International Telecommunications Union conference in Dubai this week. The ITU is a century and a half old -- the “T” once stood for “telegraph" -- and its members are countries. Just as countries have different ideas about governing their people, they don’t all agree about how to regulate a technology that transcends national borders. This has created an opening for a group of autocracies who want more control of the Internet.
Like many transnational issues -- climate change comes to mind -- the devil is in the less-than-stimulating details. Who has time to worry that all of the world’s IP addresses – those unique location indicators that allow a computer network to function -- keep running? As long as we can share family vacation photos on Facebook and watch the silly YouTube of the day, all is right in our digital universe. But as Internet usage continues to grow this issue is anything but settled.
The challenge for electronic freedom activists, then, is twofold. First, they have to shake people from the illusion that Internet freedoms are any more protected than those in the physical world. If you are shouted down by your congressman at a town hall meeting, that is in plain view of you and a host of witnesses. It’s less clear what happened when a blog has been redacted by government censors or disabled by a denial-of-service attack. Should these occur, would you know what authority to petition, to whom to complain?
The second challenge is making the Internet protect the freedoms of as many Web users as possible rather than the interests of governments. Unfortunately, the 193 member countries of the ITU will have mostly the latter in mind when they hear proposals to expand the organization’s mandate beyond important but anonymous roles like allocating satellite slots and radio spectrums.
Allowing the ITU to regulate the Internet is a bad idea. For almost two decades the Internet Westerners know has been loosely governed by the freedoms associated with liberal democracies. But through the ITU, some governments more hostile to expression see an opportunity to bring the Internet more in line with their beliefs.
On the agenda in Dubai is the International Telecommunications Regulations, a set of governing principles last updated in 1988, before the advent of the World Wide Web. Privacy activists, libertarians worried about U.N. meddling, and companies like Google each have found reason to sound the alarm about ITU action.
Going into the negotiations, autocracies like China, Iran and Russia have argued disingenuously that Internet governance should be “democratized” via the ITU, which would enable them greater control over their restive populations. They claim to lead a sizable group of countries that wants to transfer authority over IP addresses and related functions from the International Corporation of Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) -- a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that makes decisions through a network of engineers, corporate interests and government representatives -- to the ITU. The autocracies complain that the current system of Internet governance is biased in favor of the West and not inclusive enough of the developing world. They’re right but are making the argument for all of the wrong reasons.
The push to bring Internet governance under ITU control is anything but democratic.
Leaked proposals made by Russia ahead of the conference reveal an attempt to confer international legitimacy on repressive Internet policies. One idea floated would give member states, with the U.N.’s blessing, sweeping authority to inspect and censor Internet traffic coming in and out of countries under the pretext of monitoring criminal behavior or protecting national security, according to Larry Downes of tech site CNET.
While these proposals are unlikely to be adopted at the ITU conference in Dubai, they are increasingly becoming part of the global conversation on Internet governance. This should alarm those concerned with online freedom and provoke a much more inclusive effort to reform the existing governance structure from within ICANN, rather than through the ITU.
The willingness of emerging democracies like Brazil and India to entertain such heavy-handed proposals reflects a widespread dissatisfaction in the developing world with the current state of Internet governance. Paraminder Singh, the head of an Indian NGO that deals with the Internet, recently summed up this disillusionment: “Internet-related policies today are made either by mega global digital corporations or directly by the rich plurilateral bodies of the rich nations, like the OECD.” Brazil, India and other democracies see in ICANN a model that is too exclusive to Western interests and not responsive enough to developing countries.
Evidence of ICANN’s failure to represent the developing world abounds. The organization maintains English as its working language despite the fact that Chinese and Urdu and other non-Roman scripts are some of the fastest growing languages of the Internet. Further, the ICANN’s board of governors is subject to intense lobbying from corporations and NGOs based in the West. Milton Mueller, a communications professor at Syracuse University, describes how pressure from business lobbyists recently led ICANN’s CEO to call an exclusive meeting with “extremely unbalanced representation” to put forward new trademark protections for domain names. Top-down Internet governance like this empowers those calling for the ITU to play a greater role.
However flawed, ICANN is the least-bad model for Internet governance because it is based on the premise that governments play an advisory role rather than an agenda-setting one. But this important feature is being drowned out by ICANN’s opaque decision-making process and its accountability to powerful corporate interests rather than Internet users, especially those in the developing world.
ICANN desperately needs to open up to grass-roots groups across the planet, not just the big-name NGOs that can afford to send delegations to ICANN meetings. It could, for example, do more to encourage remote participation.
Just as important will be developing what Internet scholar Rebecca MacKinnon calls “a basic values framework” for ICANN, one that safeguards certain freedoms for Internet users regardless of what is decided by bureaucrats in closed-door meetings. This would help ICANN keep the overarching goal of Internet governance – to represent the online rights of as many people as possible – in perspective.
The outcry over Dubai could lead “netizens” to think more about how they can make the existing system work for them. David Post, a professor at Temple University and an expert on cyber law, said in an interview, “There will now be a whole new horde of people who will be thinking about ICANN who hadn’t thought about it before, and that’s a very good thing.”
But this thinking will not amount to much unless it is concentrated on leveraging grass-roots influence on the organization. In her book “Consent of the Networked,” Rebecca MacKinnon warns that “solutions that adequately protect netizen rights will come about … only if the netizens of the world participate actively in devising them.” Just as political apathy forfeits freedom in the physical world, so it does in the online world.
I asked MacKinnon how likely it was for netizens to be more active in demanding their rights after the outcry over Dubai. “There’s progress in that more people are paying attention to what their governments are purporting to do,” she said. “Over time, if Internet user groups and civil society groups get more focused on this issue,” they may be able to “devise ways to hold the exercise of power accountable,” she said. But this will never be realized without driving the conversation from the rooms of insulated bureaucracies out onto the chaotic popular frontier where the Internet lives.