Internet or Interpol? The case against supranational internet governance

The internet⏤perhaps the epitome of globalization.  Enabling information and new ideas to travel instantaneously across the world, the internet has linked people, places, cultures, and governments to a greater effect than arguably any other technology.  Ideas form the basis for actions, and actions manifest in ways that often support or conflict with the institutional beliefs of governing bodies.  Thus the question arises﹣how do national governments approach the question of internet governance?  Can it be governed? More importantly one might argue, should it be governed?  These questions have set the foundation for a handful of forums bringing together governments, NGOs, corporations, and individual users from across the world to engineer mutually agreed upon answers.  Starting with the first World Summit on the Information Society in Geneva in 2003, the complex matter of internet governance has continued to challenge nations into accepting new parameters for what it means to govern.  Having had no political or economic precedence, nor a constitutional doctrine; the Internet stands remarkably at odds with other forms of governance.  Even after ten years of deliberation, internet governance still remains a vague and controversial topic.  With the most recent debates having taken place at the 2014 Internet Governance Forum in Istanbul this past September, the matter is freshly revived in the minds of internet users.

The key items up for debate range from the current multi-stakeholder regulatory system to more specific subjects such as net neutrality, censorship, traceability of users, and surveillance.  Established at the World Summit on the Information Society, the multi-stakeholder system endorses a collaboration between “governments, private sector, and civil society in their respective roles, of shared principles, norms, rules, decision-making procedures, and programmes” to “shape the evolution and use of the internet”.  Included in the Internet ecosystem are several technical organizations such as ICANN and IETF.

The current system suggests elements of democracy through its representative approach to governance.  By embracing decentralized and bottom-up coordination amongst stakeholders, the system is fundamentally designed to give everyone a voice.  In fact, some suggest that internet governance as we know it is a neoliberal convention, free from manipulation by national governments.  In light of this, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the greatest supporters of this system are democratic nations such as the United States, Canada, and the Britain.  However, the diversity of participants in the system is constrained by concrete requirements such as fiber optic infrastructure or mobile broadband reception, per capita income, and access to technology─all three conditions which vary significantly between different countries.  If the governments and industries of lesser developed countries hardly have the resources to contribute to the system, then the chances for participation from individual citizens of these nations is little to zero.  This reality complicates the system’s goal to represent people from all over the world and unfortunately, there exists a markable disparity in the participation from developing countries such as Niger compared to developed countries such as the United States or Japan.

In deconstructing the global system of internet governance, there exists a great deal of variation between the ways in which states regulate the Internet within their borders.  The International Telecommunication Union recognizes the sovereign authority of states to implement national internet-related policies that are not necessarily in agreement with those of other nations.  Thus, national policies relating to internet governance often reflect the nature of the national governing institution.  Compare, for instance, the policies of authoritarian states such as China, Cuba or Iran to those of the democratic United States.  The former three, determined to be the most restrictive in the liberties reserved for internet users in their countries, contrast starkly with the United States, a leading advocate for open government and the most liberal nation when it comes to internet governance.  The difference is commonly measured by a handful of metrics such as the degree of censorship a government engages in, domestic commercial exploitation, or net neutrality within national internet traffic.  While the United States champions minimal censorship and an open internet, more authoritarian nations tend towards restrictive internet regulation that reflect the greater institutional environment.

Interestingly, the major opposition to the global system has come from the economically emerging countries commonly referred to as the BRICS.  At the World Conference on International Telecommunications in Dubai in 2012, Russia and China amongst several other countries proposed that states should have sovereign authority to define and prescribe supranational policies governing the internet.  The proposal was rejected by the U.S. on the grounds that such a change would effectively relegate the internet to the discretion of governments─a condition that contrasts strongly with the beliefs upholding the multi-stakeholder system.  The argument leveled against the current system is that it lends asymmetric power to the U.S. due to the nation’s economic and political prowess.  Developing countries, as the argument goes, are not able to exert as much influence through civil society and industry because they are not as economically developed as the U.S. and thus they support a more expanded role for international institutions comprised of national governments such as the ITU or the United Nations.  On top of this exists an emerging concern that other countries now have about the U.S. leveraging its significant role in internet governance to further intelligence collection activities based on recent revelations about U.S. surveillance.

Yet despite all of these challenges, the proposed alternate system would be far worse than what we currently have.  There are several reasons to maintain the multi-stakeholder system.  First, the system has a record of success.  Considering that the internet has only existed for a few decades, the system has allowed the internet to expand from its beginnings as a network for scientists and researchers in the United States to become arguably the principal mechanism for global information exchange and communication.  Second, all technical decisions are made by experts within specialized organizations such as IETF.  Thus, technical standards are theoretically non susceptible to political or corporate pressure in the current system, although this has not always shown to be the case.  Third, the motion to place more authority in state-run supranational organizations such as the ITU is likely a less discrete means of facilitating increased surveillance by authoritarian states such as China and Russia.  Both countries have historically filtered the flow of information within their borders, thus, they naturally would be thrilled to be in a better position to control the rules governing the internet under the veneer of organizations such as the ITU or the UN.

Although it is argued that internet freedom, or net neutrality, is the ultimate goal in the multi-stakeholder system, it is important to recognize that there are circumstances in which it would benefit many to regulate the flow of information on the internet.  Two examples that should sit well with any reader are: the videos of ISIS beheadings disseminated on YouTube, and the international availability of online child pornography.  Both examples could be combated with intervention by governments and technical organizations, an initiative that would likely receive substantial support.  However, once the exception is made to regulate the internet in some cases, the question emerges of who decides what gets to be governed.  This question exists within all forms of governance, yet in the context of the Internet, the very act of intervening would compromise the freedom of the system.  This is by no means a reason to forsake the issue, but rather, a challenge that illuminates what can be improved upon in the system.  Perhaps the answer starts with identifying any issues stemming from information on the Internet that are of mutual international concern.

For now, there are measures that can be taken to help the system fulfill its true democratic potential.  Rather than change the balance of power in the internet governance system, the ITU should focus on improving access to the internet in lesser developed regions of the world.  Supranational organizations should be more concerned with increasing the capacity of businesses and individual users in developing countries to facilitate their participation in the multi-stakeholder system.  The alternative would be giving up on these stakeholders, thus justifying the concentration of internet governance power almost solely within the governments.  Perhaps then, the starting point should be to strengthen infrastructure and plug more people into the virtual environment─literally.  By doing so, the multi-stakeholder system can develop into what it was meant to achieve from the beginning of its establishment: a system that strives to represent each and every user of the internet on equal terms.

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