There was a dramatic moment at the Seoul Conference on Cyberspace last week. It came at an unlikely point in the proceedings: the opening plenary session, usually an anodyne affair at these huge international meetings — big on pomp but shy on substance.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague delivered a blunt but accurate assessment of the future of cyberspace. He pointed to a growing divide in the world between those countries like the U.K., Canada, the U.S. and their Western allies — who want the Internet to remain open, accessible and ‘borderless’ — and countries like Russia and China who seek to exercise “exclusive control over the Internet’s content and resources.”
The future looks grim if China and Russia get their way. They are calling for an international legal framework that would put cyberspace under the control of governments and the UN. Their arguments are dressed up as a quest for more democracy, international law and transparency in cyberspace — and they’ve gathered a strong following among developing countries which have grown increasingly frustrated with being left on the fringes of a wired world driving economic growth and innovation.
This is especially true of countries in sub-Saharan Africa, which have low degrees of Internet penetration and are looking for financial and technical assistance from the North to build their own IT infrastructure and capacities.
Alas, Western democracies are behind the eight ball on this one. They were caught off-guard at the World Conference on International Telecommunications in Dubai late last year. WCIT witnessed a frontal assault on the current multi-stakeholder model of Internet governance.
The chair of that meeting, Mohamed al-Ghanim, was able to get a majority to pass a new treaty framework that could one day bring the Internet under the control of the International Telecommunications Unions, a UN regulatory body. This, in turn, would empower governments to regulate and control the Internet in ways that could be harmful to the free flow of communications, ideas and commerce in cyberspace.
The Edward Snowden scandals (which also have embarrassed Canada) are not helping Western democracies make their case for continuing the current multi-stakeholder model of Internet governance. That model is centred on ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, a technical body that coordinates the Internet and operates out the United States.
One of the Chinese delegates in Seoul argued that cyberspace “cannot be a tool of cultural or political hegemony” — a thinly-disguised dig at the U.S. and the antics of the National Security Agency (NSA), which has been gulping up Everest-sized mountains of “big data” around the globe in its fight against terrorism and America’s rivals.
The Chinese delegate also pleaded for “the rule of law and democracy in cyberspace,” but in a form that adheres to the classical principles of “state sovereignty and non-interference in the internal affairs of others.” All of which is China’s way of saying it wants to exercise even greater control over cyberspace — and what its citizens can read and do online.
Brazil also has jumped into the cyber-fracas with President Dilma Rousseff’s announcement that she will hold a conference early next year that will bring together government, industry and civil society leaders from around the world to discuss the future of the Internet.
Rouseff was more than a little piqued by Snowden’s revelations that the NSA was reading her private emails. In fact, she was so mad that she cancelled a state visit to Washington.
Fadi Chehade, chief executive of ICANN, was able to persuade Rousseff that ICANN should help organize the party so that the event doesn’t turn into a wrecking ball aimed at the current system of Internet governance.
But Hague was right on the money when he said that “the dead hand of state control would be as stifling for the Internet as it has been for many economies in the past … it would erect barriers that impede the free flow of ideas, and would lead to a ghettoised or two-tier cyberspace that hinders free trade and holds back economic growth and development. This world of closed, fragmented Internets would certainly be less free and democratic.”
This week, the global cyber-crowd is meeting in Bali at the Internet Governance Forum, a gathering of web experts, government officials and civil society representatives to debate the future of the Internet.
Those seeking to defend the current model of a free and open Internet run by ICANN and the private sector have their work cut out for them. There is deepening suspicion around the world that the current governance model is allowing major western governments, including our own, to snoop on their rivals as well as the communications of private citizens. (Not that the Chinese, the Russians and even the Brazilians aren’t doing the same to us — they just haven’t been caught yet.)
The good news is the growing recognition that we also need, in Hague’s words, new “principles that that can form the basis of widely accepted norms for behaviour in cyberspace.” Such principles and codes of conduct are needed to restore public faith in the Internet as a true a global commons — and not just a digital Wild West.