from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

The Geopolitics of the Internet: Seeing the Negotiating Table

May 30, 2013

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Coauthored with Andrew Reddie, research associate in the International Institutions and Global Governance program.

Will the Internet’s future resemble its past? That seems increasingly unlikely, given the growing influence of new global powers, the determination of many governments to control Internet access and content, and the difficulties of balancing security and civil liberties. This was the take-home message at a meeting last week on “The Geopolitics of Internet Governance,” hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The coming transformation may well challenge the longstanding U.S. vision of an open network whose governance remains largely in private hands.

To date, global Internet governance remains largely unchanged since the early 1990s, when engineers and technical experts established the “rules of the game” to manage Internet exchanges in individual countries and assigned domain names through the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). This networked, decentralized platform has permitted an explosion of private sector activity and empowered individuals to obtain and share data, knowledge and ideas in unprecedented ways.

Unless we’re careful, however, historians may look back on the past two decades as a lost golden age of Internet freedom. As last December’s World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) in Dubai made clear, a large number of states are attempting to assert sovereign—as well as intergovernmental—control over cyberspace. Of the one hundred forty-four governments attending, more than sixty percent (eighty-nine versus fifty-five) endorsed a non-binding resolution submitted by the UAE and supported by Russia and China calling for the ITU “to foster an enabling environment for the greater growth of the Internet.”

This would be no cosmetic change. Currently, intergovernmental supervision of the Internet is light: states play only an advisory role in ICANN through the Government Advisory Council (GAC). It is feared that the Chinese-Russian proposal would give a more robust role to states to supervise their “government-controlled” networks. Thanks to the consensus-based decision-making of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), Western powers were able to rebuff this effort to add the Internet to the ITU’s mandate, at least for now. But the issue will surely resurface at next year’s ITU Plenipotentiary Conference, scheduled for Busan, South Korea, in October 2014.

At first glance, the ITU—a specialized agency of the United Nations—would seem the logical global forum for Internet governance. But as The Internationalist argued last December, handing the Internet to the UN is rife with unacceptable risks. The United States, Europe, Japan and other advanced democracies justifiably worry that a shift toward greater inter-state regulation of the Internet could cripple the very innovation that has allowed it to thrive and undermine its open nature, given the vastly different preferences of national governments regarding the role of the private sector, the protection of civil liberties, and the requirements of security. China and Russia, for example, support a stronger role for the ITU, seeing it as a bulwark of state sovereignty, and advocate a heavier hand for the state in controlling the flow and content of information on the Internet—postures that Western governments regard as unacceptable.

The demand for a greater state role in Internet governance will not go away, however. Even some major democracies in the developing world, such as Brazil and India, lean toward a stronger sovereign control and have misgivings about perceived U.S. control (through ICANN) over the Internet. A growing number of developing states (again including Brazil) are laying their own global Internet cables [see Map], and want to manage that traffic that flows through these networks.

Given this context, the trick for the United States and likeminded partners is to find a limited role for the ITU in global Internet governance that avoids states and politicians usurping control of Internet exchanges from the current multi-stakeholder model, which is based upon the technical skills of Internet service providers, regional internet registries, and various other support organizations.  The alternative is a world in which states gain greater power to perform “deep packet” inspection of information—that is to say, to monitor (and conceivably censor) private communications.

Reining in the vaulting ambitions of the ITU is a good place to start. Seeking to prove his organization’s relevance, the ITU Secretary-General, Dr. Hamadoun Touré, in May 2013 outlined nine distinct challenges the organization should address. Of these, only four—connectivity, network development, network robustness, and privacy assurance—are remotely linked to the ITU’s current capabilities and expertise and thus warrant broad support.

Given the ITU’s mandate to harmonize global telecommunications standards, it has a legitimate role to play in facilitating global connectivity—including supporting broadband connections and the establishment of additional internet exchange points. The ITU could also help improve Internet access to under-served communities: today, the Internet reaches only one-third of the global population. Two other areas within the ITU’s remit are improving the robustness of networks so that they can survive spikes in traffic (or cut cables) and—a priority for Western countries—ensuring privacy for packets of information that travel across national borders.

The ITU has few comparative advantages when it comes to the other five issues Touré identified. ICANN will remain the most appropriate venue to discuss the challenge of “multilingualism” (or reconciling alternative code types) on the Internet, as well as the assignment of domain names. And despite occasional protests from states that disapprove of ICANN’s relationship with the U.S. government (on the grounds that it is chartered by the U.S. Department of Commerce), in practice the GAC has supported 90 percent of the decisions of ICANN’s Board.

Finally, individual states, including national legal systems and law enforcement officials, will remain the most appropriate entities to address the remaining three issues on Touré’s list: combatting cybercrime, curtailing spam, and protecting individuals (including children) from Internet exploitation.

Too often, Internet governance is conceptualized as a zero-sum game between those states that wish to control the Internet and those that wish to allow its users freedom to use it. The reality is that all states face the challenge of discerning what is appropriate online—and of making trade-offs between security and openness. At the Dubai WCIT conference, it was tempting to caricature the ITU as a tool of a Russian and Chinese-led coalition. But one should not dismiss the ITU’s potential to advance global Internet governance in certain limited domains. Going forward, U.S. and international policymakers need to parse the comparative advantages of the ITU, ICANN, and the current multi-stakeholder model—ideally in a manner that meets global needs while avoiding a large-scale confrontation between blocs of states.

Before the two blocs once again berate one another from opposite sides of the negotiating table, they ought to examine what is already on it.