The Internet leaves home

Kevin Drum notes and is not enthused by this news:

U.S. officials announced plans Friday to relinquish federal government control over the administration of the Internet.

What is going on?

First, it’s not the whole administration of the Internet. ICANN is only responsible for the management of the domain name system (.com. .edu. .uk, etc). This is probably the least controversial part of Internet governance. It gets a lot of attention perhaps because its activities are more or less comprehensible to non-geeks, unlike those of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and the 3WC Consortium, which look after the TCP transmission protocol and the HTML content protocol respectively. That’s not the full list of players; I’ve no idea what the Internet Architecture Board and the Internet Society do in the ecosystem. It’s possible therefore that releasing US formal control over ICANN is a preemptive concession designed to head off attempts to cut the US down to size in bodies which are more important for the NSA.

We have to backtrack. The ramshackle Internet governance structure evolved under a US government patronage apparently so loose that everybody that mattered was prepared to let the anomaly ride. There were grumblings from the ITU (the UN’s specialised telecoms agency), the EU Commission, various authoritarian governments, NGOs shut out of the cosy club, cops hunting paedophiles and money launderers, and world government idealists, that found an outlet at talkfests like the UN-sponsored World Summits on the Information Society. Nothing much came of them. After all, the US was as powerless as the Internet groups to stop China’s erection of the Great Firewall.

Snowden’s revelations changed all this. It turned out that the apparently benign American hands-off policy masked a systematic project to rifle the entire Internet, web pages, page hits, and emails alike, for every scrap of information that might be conceivably relevant to the hunt for elastically defined terrorists. The legal basis for this was and is so nationalist that it denies all the rest of the world’s population any rights to privacy whatever. As an added insult, Snowden revealed that NSA experts had tried to deceive the ITEF into adopting security standards deliberately weakened to facilitate US surveillance.

The news sent a tsunami through the little world of Internet governance. In October 2013, representatives of all the fruit salad adopted a joint statement in Montevideo. Key grafs:

  • They reinforced the importance of globally coherent Internet operations, and warned against Internet fragmentation at a national level. They expressed strong concern over the undermining of the trust and confidence of Internet users globally due to recent revelations of pervasive monitoring and surveillance.

  • They identified the need for ongoing effort to address Internet Governance challenges, and agreed to catalyze community-wide efforts towards the evolution of global multistakeholder Internet cooperation.

  • They called for accelerating the globalization of ICANN and IANA functions, towards an environment in which all stakeholders, including all governments, participate on an equal footing.

As revolutionary manifestoes go, it’s dull reading, but they clearly meant it.

What made the revolt of the über-geeks effective was the wider political shock-wave, particularly the revelations of US spying on Dilma Rousseff and Angela Merkel. Washington might be able to ignore Dilma’s pique and hope the fuss would die down as just another outburst of wounded pride from a bunch of backward latinos. Dilma had been persecuted as a young woman by a right-wing military régime relying on old-fashioned means of repression, censorship, informers and brutality. Her heart wasn’t perhaps in a protest about something quite different. But Germany was a different matter. Privacy and data protection are deeply entrenched principles of postwar German democracy. Angela Merkel had grown up under the true surveillance state of the Stasi. And Germany is at the same technical level as the USA. There was no way that Germany could let this one go; and it could gain a solid majority in the EU for a hard line.

The old Internet arrangements have to go. But what can replace them?

Formally, it’s easy enough to attach the bodies to the UN framework. The danger is that few other governments would be able resist meddling, leading to worse technical decisions and, far more important, decisions which would facilitate government control of the flow of information. The Montevideo call for ”multi-stakeholder” governance is a plea to keep the current high weighting of experts, users, and providers, which has served quite well to protect freedom of information. The problem is to find an institutional formula that recognizes specific legitimate government interests in national security and criminal justice, but that doesn’t internationalise authoritarian restrictions on free speech. (It’s utopian wishful thinking to expect that the Internet can stop censorship within countries.) The case of hate speech show how difficult it is to strike such a balance, even between democracies.

One option is to attach the circus to the ITU. It’s a technical organization not a political one, and has been agitating for the Internet slot. The objection here is that the ITU started out as a club of national telegraph companies, and is still basically a club for telcos. These are certainly legitimate stakeholders, as they run the physical infrastructure of cables and routers on which Internet traffic flows. But they are one stakeholder among others, and not a passive one. They have been trying in the US at least to undermine net neutrality and extract rents from premium content. Grafting other stakeholders into the ITU – content providers like Netflix and humble bloggers, data service providers like Google, retailers like Amazon, and ordinary users like you, dear reader – will be difficult and will run against the cultural grain of the institution.

There are two other options. One is modelled on UN peacekeeping. The UN Security Council approves a peacekeeping mission, than basically dumps the whole thing on the UN Secretariat to carry out. This works surprisingly well, considering the shoestring funding and lack of a proper staff. The problem is lack of accountability and consultation. This may be inherent in a military operation, but the model looks a poor fit for the needs of the Internet.

A better model is offered, I suggest, by the Geneva Conventions on humanitarian law. These are full-fledged, and very important, inter-state multilateral treaties. International law doesn’t get any more lawlike than this. Their implementing agency, however, is the International Committee of the Red Cross. In spite of its name, this is a Swiss foundation. Indeed, its core employees must be Swiss. Its independence has been extraordinarily well accepted, even through the violent 20th century. It depends of course on the political commitment of Switzerland to neutrality. I’m not suggesting the International Committee of the Internet need be Swiss, only independent. The job is very different – but even today, it’s a lot less sensitive. The robustness of the exemplar is a strong encouragement to explore this route.

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