Sleepers and strange bedfellows


August 31, 2012

“Sleepers” are not just Le Carre-like foreign spies hiding in our midst. They are also political issues where the potential consequences of things going wrong are seriously underestimated beforehand.

“Strange bedfellows” occur when political actors with very different values, opportunistically but perhaps not happily, end up as tactical allies, at least temporarily.

A complex cast of strange bedfellows is currently preparing to “go to the mattresses” (as in The Godfather) at meetings that will take place in Dubai from December 3-14. One hundred and ninety-three states represented in some cases by heads of government will negotiate amendments to the International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs) administered by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU).

What is at stake? A number of sleeper issues that collectively amount to nothing less than the future of the Internet: who decides what it carries, and who decides what we may have to pay (and to whom) to access it.

How are the forces lining up? While governments will be officially represented, important non-state actors are seeking to influence the outcome. The result is a set of surprising coalitions. Those who want more order range from countries worried about political dissent (e.g. China and Iran) to those who want to protect their intellectual property (e.g. record labels and movie makers) or billing models (e.g. European telcos). Those who want less or no order include hackers, civil society groups concerned about privacy, advocates of unlimited freedom of expression, as well as criminal elements.

How is the Internet now governed? It is managed through something called multi-stakeholder governance, which refers to arrangements that include governments, international organizations, corporations and non-profits, as well as civil society groups. These arrangements reflect the growth of the Internet from a military and scientific project into the social and commercial entity we know today.

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), based in California, is the key body that ensures the Internet runs well. The former CEO of ICANN, Rod Beckstrom, took a number of steps to increase outreach and consultation – including opening the governance of ICANN to nationals of other countries. For example, Xiaodong Lee (a major Internet player in China) is an ICANN Vice-President.

ICANN’s objective is a globally accessible, unified and reliable Internet. But ICANN remains a US corporation, and therefore objectionable to some on principle.

There is a move afoot to include the Internet in the above-mentioned ITRs. It is possible one or more non-binding resolutions to this effect could pass in Dubai. If that sleeper awakes, or even if it doesn’t, there will be more such attempts in the next few years. The objective will be to solidify as a norm the belief that the ITU ought to manage the Internet. It is important to resist this, and work to improve the present multi-stakeholder process.

Despite its flaws, the existing set of multi-stakeholder arrangements remains the best available option to ensure a reliable, global Internet that balances safeguards for privacy and freedom of expression with legitimate security concerns.

For most of the developed world, the Internet has become a necessity, but one that is taken for granted. In addition to its economic value, the political consequences of free access to information and the capacity to network have been huge; one need only think of the Arab Spring.

These values are under threat from numerous directions. Organized crime is increasingly exploiting the Internet for purposes of theft. Fringe hacker elements include those so opposed to the creation of new rules that they are willing to bring down the house on everybody’s head; Operation Global Blackout, for example, threatens to bring down the Domain Name System (DNS). Such threats prompted the head of the US National Security Agency, General Keith Alexander, to travel one month ago to Las Vegas for DefCon, the largest hacker conference in the world (upwards of 10,000 participants), to ask for help. Strange bedfellows indeed!

States themselves are ramping up their capabilities in the area of cyber-espionage and cyber-warfare.

The control of the Internet is high international power politics. Sophisticated state-sponsored computer attacks have breached government and corporate networks, compromising confidential information.

More recent attacks have used viruses to perform acts of sabotage – the Stuxnet attack on the Iranian nuclear program is one example. While it is unlikely such activities can be stopped, the lack of clear rules and norms surrounding state security activities on the Internet leaves a vacuum that heightens political tensions, corrodes rights and freedoms, and potentially risks lives.

We need a comprehensive view of, and debate on, the future of the Internet, and we need it soon. The Internet has become (largely) a global public good. Its preservation and enhancement ought to be a foreign policy priority, above all for democracies.

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.

About the Authors

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.