On Dec. 3, a major treaty negotiation began in Dubai: The World Conference on International Telecommunications aims to update the International Telecommunication Regulations that were last revised in 1988, before the emergence of the Internet as a part of everyday life. In the interim, an array of Internet-specific governance arrangements has evolved. While these mechanisms leave room for incremental improvement, they have enabled technological, social and economic changes comparable to the Industrial Revolution.

Fundamentally altering the rules of the game midway through such a complex process as the adoption of Internet technologies entails massive risks. Caution is even more strongly indicated if the proposed rules amount to repudiation of the basic values embedded in the Internet that have contributed to its successes. And yet a variety of WCIT proposals seek to erect new Internet governance arrangements that raise red flags.

One set of proposals would substantially change the economic model of the Internet – allowing states, for example, to collect fees for the transit of Internet traffic through their territory or requiring companies using high amounts of bandwidth to pay network operators for the traffic generated by their businesses. The net effect of these kinds of measures would be to redistribute wealth from the industrial world toward companies and individuals in a small number of states, including Russia and China.

Charging for Internet traffic requires knowing where data packets originate. Thus, efforts to employ international regulations to extract resources fit naturally with other WCIT proposals to enable increased state surveillance and blocking of Internet traffic. Such efforts are not new and don’t require international rules (as the recent Internet shutdown in Syria demonstrates), but such rules can make monitoring and blocking more effective and also potentially more legitimate.

These proposals are being advanced by a group of states led by Russia and China and with significant representation from the Arab world. While the strict decision rules for multilateral treaty negotiations will likely prevent them from prevailing at the WCIT, they will have ample opportunity to further their agenda in other venues. The next such major opportunity is the World Technology Policy Forum in Geneva next May.

In contrast, the group of countries broadly committed to the current multi-stakeholder model of Internet governance remains fragmented. This group lacks an overall strategic vision of what they want the Internet to look like.

Such a lack of vision is a fundamental disadvantage in negotiation. Absent clear values and preferences, it’s impossible to pursue a positive agenda, limiting negotiators to a defensive, rearguard action. Further, it hampers efforts to manage tradeoffs between distinct values such as civil liberties and security.

The result could be a gradual move in the direction of more state control. The perception that Internet governance outcomes are leading to a more state-controlled Internet, whether by design or by accident, risks creating a backlash.

While large-scale disruption of the Internet must be avoided due to its integration with financial markets and critical infrastructure, dissent and opposition online should not be seen as intrinsically threatening or illegitimate. In particular, such political speech must be carefully distinguished from cybercrime and cyberterrorism. The appropriate conceptual frame is civil disobedience.

Maintaining this distinction will take leadership and training on the part of law enforcement and security organizations, just as it will require restraint and moderation on the part of Internet activists such as hacker collective Anonymous. Most of all, it will take sustained dialogue.

This kind of genuine engagement is important not only to minimize the immense potential damage from major Internet disruptions, but also to communicate that, at least in this case, major industrial democracies and loose-knit hacker groups have substantially overlapping interests in preventing a heavily state-dominated Internet along the lines of the one desired by Russia, China and other authoritarian states.

Ensuring real opportunities for people who feel passionately about online freedoms to play a constructive role in the future of the Internet can help ensure vital civil liberties – freedoms crucial to the Internet’s creative potential – are not lost in the process of achieving other Internet governance goals, such as security. That is, it can help states committed to a multi-stakeholder regime for Internet governance maintain their focus on a strategic vision for the Internet as they play a long game against determined adversaries.

While large-scale disruption of the Internet must be avoided due to its integration with financial markets and critical infrastructure, dissent and opposition online should not be seen as intrinsically threatening or illegitimate.
The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.
  • A former Canadian deputy foreign minister, NATO ambassador and G7/G8 Sherpa, Gordon Smith is a leading expert on the evolution of the G20 and global summitry.