A sticky WCIT and the battle for control of the internet

At the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT), authoritarian governments staked worrying claims. But the US-dominated model of non-governmental internet governance brings its own problems, writes Alison Powell. Beware of the Clinton Paradox.

Is the future of the internet in shambles? A widely reported ‘collapse’ of talks at the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) at the end of 2012 suggested that the battle lines have now been drawn for a long fight over the role of states in controlling internet access. Despite agreeing a draft preamble on 13 December 2012 , a number of states pulled out of the agreement, claiming that the new treaty departed from the model of multi-stakeholder internet governance.

On the surface the conflict appears to play out simply as freedom v control, or little regulation v state regulation. On the one hand are the western democracies who seek to protect freedom of speech by insisting that states stay out of the business of regulating internet access. On the other are countries including Russia, China and Arab states, who seek to coordinate cybersecurity through the UN International Telecommunications Union (ITU). But according to some observers of the internet governance process, things are not so simple. Opposition to the paradigm of non-governmental control comes not only from states who wish to tightly control dissenting speech in their countries, but from governments who fear that the United States could use internet governance as a diplomatic tactic. This raises the possibility that citizens of countries under US sanction could find their internet access curtailed – whether or not they support their government’s position.

To understand the roots of the opposition to non-governmental control based in only one country, and to see the future challenges for freedom of speech on the internet, we have to look at the historic role of the USA in current internet governance arrangements. ICANN, the non-profit Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, which controls who can use which domain names, acts under contract to the US government. Although it is a ‘multi-stakeholder’ organization that involves participation from civil society, industry and many governments, it has been criticized for the way it appears to bend to the interests of powerful actors. For example, a recently introduced process allows governments to provide ‘early warning’ lists of domain names that they have concerns about registering – and the government of Australia apparently takes issue with domains that end in .sucks.

A further concern over the role of the US in internet governance has to do with what has been identified as the Clinton Paradox: the way that the United States advocates for internet freedom as a core component of freedom of speech, while simultaneously curtailing internet access rights (often for its own citizens) in the name of protection from threat. These pressures affect all countries, but because many internet companies are headquartered in the US, they can sometimes have impact beyond national borders. Observers in countries under US sanctions report that they are unable to access some internet-based services: one commenter notes that when simple web tools are accessed, messages like this one appear: “A connection has been established between your current IP address and a country sanctioned by the U.S. government.

Experienced observers of internet governance processes say that ITU meetings like the one last week are one of the few places that poor nations can represent their interests, and the only inter-governmental process in which they have a vote.  The discussions at the WCIT and the details of the proposed treaty were complex, and those at the meetings identified several reasons for their breakdown. One was a failure of process, where the WCIT conference chair abandoned the consensus model in favour of a vote. The other was the language of some of the treaty, which was seen as worryingly close to regulating ‘content’ on the internet and hence making it possible for governments to control content.

These two breakdowns, combined with negotiators from countries with poor human rights records arguing for a right to state control of communications, frustrated participants. So did a controversial, non-binding resolution that suggested to some that the UN should take more responsibility for regulating the internet – and for others did not go far enough.

The result is a treaty signed by some, but not by most. Most governments whose delegations included civil society participants did not sign. The most publicized statement came from US Ambassador (and tech industry insider) Terry Kramer: “The Internet has given the world unimaginable economic and social benefit during these past 24 years. All without UN regulation. We candidly cannot support an ITU Treaty that is inconsistent with the multi-stakeholder model of Internet governance.”

The temptation is to retain the status quo. But if the supposedly multi-stakeholder ICANN privileges some interests over others, and if the concentration of power in internet governance institutions in the United States makes it  possible for “pro-internet freedom nations [to use] denial of access to internet services and infrastructure as a form of policy leverage” – as internet governance scholar Milton Mueller says – then the breakdown should not be seen simply as a fight between the freedom-loving West and the autocratic East.  Self-declared protectors of freedom of speech may have competing interests at odds with their altruism. The world needs accountable governance institutions that can transcend these conflicts of interest. The question remains: how?

Alison Powell is Lecturer in Media and Communications at the London School of Economics. She is a member of the European Network of Excellence in Internet Science and on the Advisory Council for the Open Rights Group.

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Comments (3)

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  1. I am afraid I know very little about the internet or telecommunications in general; I just manage to learn enough to basically use the stuff we have today. Perhaps that puts me at a serious disadvantage; being the dumb person who has no specialist knowledge. Well OK, I’ll leave all the highly technical stuff to others, step far back and look at the long view, the generic one. I would like to try to contribute this way. There some things that come into my mind, though in a jumbled way. First we must think of what the internet may become as time passes, rather than in a fixed way. We need also to try to perceive its total value, considering its diversity and the diversity of those who may use it. We must beware of deeply flawed thinking; even from those with seemingly impeccable education and technical knowledge. The current economic downturn will sharpen minds and make governments and business more ruthless. I believe every attempt will be made to cloud the judgment of the public in general. War on Terror methods may be used, certainly those involved in the the war on terror will be at be forefront of everything. This is a very big issue; control of the internet would be a key part of total control and management of more or less everything. The common people would be made to believe this was their idea. What I believe we need is the greatest amount of internet freedom possible; restricting only that which does undue harm to others. I believe there is a genuine need to protect the public from harm, by those who would be considered criminals, on or off the web. However any restrictions to serve this agenda, should not be disingenuous or in itself a threat.

  2. Unfortunately it seems the negotiations are going as feared, we have the predictable “good vs evil” power show. On one side the more overtly dictatorial nations, China, Russia, openly demand high levels of surveillance and restriction. On the other, America, The UK, stand valiant and strong, “defending our freedoms” as they so often claim.

    Of course this is an illusion. If you study the changes to legislation made in western nations over the last three decades, you will become keenly aware of a trend. If you believe a country is truly ruled by its laws then the gradual deterioration of rights and individual powers would leave the logical observer with an impression of our systems as very similar to the Chinese or Russian. The key difference is in the level of utilisation of that legislative power. Ultimately however the goals at meetings such as this will essentially be the same regardless of the nation.

    What i predict is a loud fuss over key issues followed by a quiet “compromise” in which only a fraction of the specifics are discussed openly. The loudest and most prominent from the west and the most silent and discrete from the east will be the writers of our internet future, so currently that is in the hands of America and China. Surely, regardless of the form it takes, we all know whats coming don’t we?

  3. Having once again having read though this article and the comments; I have reflected on one or two interesting points. I should make it clear at this point; I have only a basic users knowledge of computers and even less of telecommunications. I also have only the rudiments of a basic education. However I have sometimes miraculously excelled at understanding things, purely because I’m familiar with skulduggery and recognize there’s a measure of such ingrained within controls of the internet. I am a human rights and other issue campaigner/lobbyist and have come across many issues that involve the internet in some way. Most will remember the five Muslim men extradited to the United States; two of them were said to have maintained a web site where certain people supported the Mujaheddin in there struggle against the Soviet Army, that had invaded Afghanistan. I remember watching a ‘Rambo’ film about this with the Mujaheddin portrayed has heroes. The British Government along with the US Government clearly supported this action and the US gave money and arms. When 9/11 came along the US and UK carried out sweeping betrayals, integrated with many proxy arrests, on a cash for criminals, big money paid and anything accepted basis. These two will most probably spend life in solitary confinement without parole. The public do not know much about this and so do not have an opinion. Whilst this has been in the news, and they read whatever the stance of the paper they read at the time told them. All this may seem like a pointless rant from the local nutter, until one considers the other side of things. What else can be found on the web concerning these issues. Six weeks ago I watched a video from Iraq said to be a “Cops with Cameras” type video. ‘Said to be’ taken in secret by a whistleblower this showed American private contract policemen, getting drunk smashing up as much government property as possible. Drunken driving, ramming cars, threatening bystanders and so fourth. I could only put this down as a ‘conspiracy theory’ video, because there was no evidence otherwise. I have seen many videos on the internet that the sender will claim to be absolute proof of whatever they claim it to be; whilst there’s proof of nothing. From the many I’ve seen from Iraq and elsewhere some of even the most bizarre murder videos, have gained believably. Commenting on such material is always an invidious situation; the videos may be contentious, but money matters are the same everywhere. People want to be paid; so I keep my eye on the money. I printed a copy of the claim for all the damage in a court case in the US, the vid is genuine. I’ve no doubt things are the same across the world, with the desire of Governments and authorities to control what is on the internet; but I believe they do an amazing job of controlling the people generically, and without the people knowing. I suppose we live in a sea of propaganda; but not in the format people see in spy movies, with one central control point and one fixed purpose. It is very ‘broad spectrum’ and we are perpetrators not just victims, once without really knowing it.

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Free Speech Debate is a research project of the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom at St Antony's College in the University of Oxford. www.freespeechdebate.ox.ac.uk

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