14 December, 2012

Internet governance or Internet control?

Sérgio Abranches

A maneuver to introduce a clause about Internet governance on the International Telecommunications Treaty led to protest and several democratic countries declined to sign the document. They have strong reasons to refuse. The Internet was born to be self-governed. Not to become the subject of some organization’s dominance, be it multilateral or domestic.

Governance is a fickle word. It fits many different narratives. Words do not have a life of their own – although authors, especially fiction writers may tell you they do. Fickle words are used at the whim in charge of the narrative. They can be used deviously to mask the real purposes and the real attributes of the narrative. They can be used fairly and transparently to convey meaning and informative content to the narrative. If governance is to be a virtuous citizen-based mode of regulation, and transparent inclusive decision-making it has a positive value. If it is a fashionable word to cover authoritarian rules, manipulation and censorship it has a negative value.

The controversy over Internet governance in Dubai, during the WCTI conference emerged after the term appeared unexpectedly on a draft resolution of the ITRs. This sudden appearance on a narrative in which it wasn’t expected to be a part caused a breech of confidence. Many feared that it was a cunning maneuver to introduce it as a principle among the rules of the new treaty. Suspicions were supported by the fact that the draft gave ITU a mandate “to play active and constructive roles in the development of broadband and the multi-stakeholder model of the internet”. Another controversial clause says that “the Internet is a central element of the infrastructure of the information economy, and recognizes that all governments should have an equal role and responsibility for international Internet governance, the security and stability of the Internet, and its future development.”

The draft was supported by a coalition of authoritarian nations, most of them well-known for their a long tradition of repression of civil liberties and censorship, among them Russia and China. Censorship never succeeds to mute the voice of dissidence and the manifestation of difference. In the late Soviet Union, for example, no degree of repression and censorship was enough to eliminate the “Samizdat”. The volume of circulation of “Samizdat” was impressive, and they ended up on the hands of publishers outside the USSR. Some of their authors became icons of resistance to totalitarianism and literary prowess. But it would be dreadful if we would be forced to devise new “Samizdat” models as a tool to elude a censored Internet. Censorship would certainly provoke a cyberguerrilla warfare. We’ve already had examples of creative ways to elude censorship in Egypt, Iran, Cuba, China, and wherever governments tried to prevent citizens from expressing their opinions on the Net or to hide the atrocities they were committing against their people or internal minorities.

There is a virtuous mode of Internet governance, and it is necessarily a mode of self-government based on a free and active cybercitizenry, open, transparent and free networking, capable of self-regulation. Those who declined to sign the new treaty are right. It may not have an authoritarian narrative yet, but it carries its seeds in dubious clauses that can be interpreted at the whim of any dictator. ITU’s secretary general, Hamadoun Toure, was surprised with the strong opposition to the decision. He said the conference was a success and that the changes “to the international telecommunications regulations (ITRs) introduced new protections for consumers around the world, and would help billions more get online”.

TechNet CEO Rey Ramsey strongly opposed the changes, stating that:

“The ITU is government-centric, lacks transparency, excludes key stakeholders including civil society, and fails to promote a multi-stakeholder approach to Internet governance that was embraced by the world’s governments at the 2005 World Summit on Information Society (WSIS), and has been a pillar of the industry’s innovation and growth,” he said. “While it is our understanding that the resolutions made at the WCIT are non-binding, the Secretary-General might treat them as binding, which effectively creates a dangerous mandate for the ITU to continue to hold discussions about Internet policy into the future.”

Ed Black, speaking for the Computer & Communications Industry Association, said that “the controversial circumstances that gave rise to yesterday’s Internet power grab should be illuminating. Giving this body control over the future of greatest input to the world’s economy should be a non-starter.” To him, “under no circumstances should the stewards of the Internet be forced to hand over the keys to Internet governance mechanisms to a body where the short-sighted political considerations of morally questionable regimes hold more weight than concerns of the very engineers and programmers who have built and maintained the Internet since its birth.”

The Internet is a network of networks born to be self-governed. Any delegation of governance power to any agency, multilateral or domestic, would become a clear and present danger of authoritarian manipulation and censorship based on a plethora of moral, political, and practical arguments that may appear to make sense to some. At the end of the day, however, they simply carry the same ideas that led to book burning, the Inquisition, witch hunting and mccarthyism.

The decision rules of the conference gave the power of the majority to countries that have no democracy at home. They benefit from global democratic institutions to foster their undemocratic purposes. This is the major contradiction of UN institutions. All multilateral conferences that follow the general assembly model run the risk of spurious coalitions blocking measures aiming at increasing democracy and freedom of opinion, and making decisions that represent a danger to democracy and freedom. These majorities based on spurious coalitions work against the general will and the collective wisdom. I’ve seen that happen in many conferences of the parties to the Climate Change Convention.

European Commission’s vice-president and commissary for the digital agenda, Neelie Kroes, also reacted to the decision:

“While we do not believe that Internet governance should be under the ambit of the ITRs, this does not mean the EU wants to “set in stone” all current governance practices. New trends in traffic volumes and new demand for assured quality of delivery, may lead to new solutions, but I am confident that our current European and international frameworks allow more nimble and appropriate commercial reactions than any international treaty. We also want to support developing countries to build capacity and infrastructures for the Internet.”

This debate is not over yet. It will continue over the next years and we can expect tough encounters between those willing to control the Internet, and those who want a free, self-governed Internet. The Internet will change a lot and very fast, as it has been doing since its very beginning. The Websphere will expand and diversify through many unexpected and mostly unpredictable ways. Thus has been its history so far. And the history of its future will show even more change and much faster. Any attempt to guide or program change brings serious dangers to freedom of opinion and creation. Those potential restrictions to freedom and creativity are unacceptable and could lead to technical stagnation and clog the extraordinary channels for networked democratic intercourse. Free expression through the social media and other channels available on the Web have a relevant role that cannot be curtailed. They allow watchdogs to blow the whistle and give transparency to violence, repression, corruption, plots, and all sorts of deviations from democratic and humanitarian principles. They are the best tools of the network society we have to  monitor political, social and economic processes both locally and globally.

A free Internet is today a prerequisite for increasing the quality of domestic and global democratic institutions. Most contemporary democracies are reverting to oligarchies. The channels for representation have been sequestered by special interests, lobbies and specialized advocacy groups. The parties are controlled by internal oligarchies. Only the social networks give citizens the means to express their preferences and defend their interests. A free Internet has become the main tool of the networked society to progressively build a new democracy, a more transparent and autonomous citizen-centered poliarchy.