December 16, 2012 8:18 pm

The fight to keep a state-free internet

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Online world flourishes beyond the control of governments, says Gordon Goldstein

The first gathering of world governments to debate the future of the internet has ended in dramatic discord, with 55 member states of a UN body refusing to sign a global treaty on international telecommunications. The collapse of the talks marks just the first battle in what will be an enduring global contest to define the governance and control of the internet in the 21st century.

The World Conference on International Telecommunications, which concluded last week in Dubai, had a mandate to modernise a series of regulations drafted in the pre-internet era of 1988. While updating the rules surrounding global telephony proved straightforward, the relentless effort by some nations to put the internet at the centre of the agenda proved to be the catalyst for several countries and regions – ranging from the US and EU to Kenya, Costa Rica, Japan and Latvia – to not sign the treaty.

States dissenting from the new treaty cited a deep commitment to the internet’s dynamic governance model, which has emerged organically over the past two decades. Based on co-operation among civil society, global technical bodies and the private sector, the internet has flourished beyond the control of governments, fostering staggering innovation and growth through its flat, open and globally unregulated structure. The final version of the treaty impinges on that paradigm in four critical ways.

First, at the insistence of Russia, China and several Arab states, the treaty includes a provision mandating co-ordination on cybersecurity, defined euphemistically as “network” security. The treaty calls on the UN International Telecommunications Union and its member states to accede to vague commitments that experts fear may evolve into an effort by states to engage in the global surveillance of internet traffic.

Second, encouraged by African nations and supported by countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, the treaty creates a requirement that member states seek to defend against internet spam, which is imprecisely defined as “unsolicited bulk electronic communications”. Critics noted that spam is easily managed by commercially prevalent software and technology, and warned that the expansive definition it applied could be appropriated as a tool to censor content, ranging from political speech to web advertising.

Third, the treaty has a resolution calling on the ITU and its members to play an enlarged role in “international internet governance and for ensuring the stability, security and continuity of the existing internet and its future development”. That particular provision was adopted without a vote at 1.30am on Thursday, based only on a show of hands initiated by Hamadoun Toure, ITU secretary-general, and certified by Mohamed al-Ghanim, the conference chairman, of the United Arab Emirates.

Finally, a new formulation of the treaty changes the definition of its scope and authority in ambiguous ways, creating a class of entities falling under its jurisdiction, potentially including internet service providers, private networks and even government networks.

Why were some nations so determined to sweep the internet under the aegis of a UN treaty last revised 24 years ago? The internet connects 2.2bn people, with 500,000 new users joining every day. It is estimated that the internet economy will be worth $4.2tn by 2016 in the Group of 20 countries alone, with an annual growth rate of 8-18 per cent in developing countries. More profoundly, it has emerged as the most potent technology in history to foment political change and undermine authoritarian regimes. The internet is now perceived by many states to be far too consequential a strategic resource to be left outside of their control.

The contest for control of the internet will accelerate, likely breaking down into two competing blocs. One will seek to preserve the paradigm of non-governmental control that has allowed the internet to flourish. The other will also seek to harness the benefits of the internet but will try to govern and shape it through the authority of state and inter-governmental control. This contest promises to be a central narrative in geopolitics in the decades ahead.

The writer is senior vice-president at Silver Lake and served on the US delegation to the WCIT. He writes in a personal capacity

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