“Ist” vs. “Soll”: the Dark Side of the Internet

This post by Richard Hill is part of a series related to the 2014 Milton Wolf Seminar on Media and Diplomacy: The Third Man Theme Revisited: Foreign Policies of the Internet in a Time Of Surveillance and Disclosure, which takes place in Vienna, Austria from March 30 – April 1, 2014. The 2014 seminar is jointly organized by the Center for Global Communication Studies (CGCS) at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, the American Austrian Foundation (AAF), and the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna (DA).  For more information visit the seminar webpage and Facebook PageRichard Hill is the principal  of Hill & Associates in Geneva, Switzerland.

The internet has become a vitally important social infrastructure that profoundly impacts our societies.  It has transformed the way we do many things but the benefits promised for all have not been adequately realized. On the contrary, we have seen mass surveillance, abusive use of personal data and their use as a means of social and political control; the monopolization, commodification and monetisation of information and knowledge; inequitable flows of finances between poor and rich countries; and erosion of cultural diversity.  Many technical, and thus purportedly “neutral,” decisions have in reality led to social injustice as technology architectures, often developed to promote vested interests, increasingly determine social, economic, cultural and political relationships and processes.

Many of the issues outlined above are discussed in the context of what is called “internet governance,”  This is a minor industry, with something like 100 people working in it full-time, attending various meetings around the world.

Why isn’t there a “GSM governance” (Global System for Mobile Communications) industry, even though GSM reaches more than twice as many people, is more economically significant, and is more significant even as a tool for fostering political change?

Because offline law applies online, and some people don’t like this with respect to “the internet.”  In particular, some people think that the meta-rules, that is, the rules for making rules, should be different with respect to the internet.  Some think that technologists should set the rules for internet, others think that governments should set public policy, others think that all “stakeholders” should work together on an equal footing.  This last view in effect gives veto power to private companies, thus protecting incumbents and the status quo.

It is axiomatic that private companies seek to maximize, or at least protect, their profits. Thus it is not surprising that those who favor the status quo are those who are at present profitable.  These are primarily US-based companies, supported by some developed-country companies.

It is also axiomatic that states seek to maximize, or at least protect, their power and interests.  Thus it is not surprising that the US seeks to maintain the status quo, which enables it to exercise pervasive surveillance and at least a nominal level of control over certain aspects of the internet.  The US is supported by Australia, Canada, Japan, Sweden, UK and several other European countries.  It is challenged by the BRICS and most developing countries.

Supporters of the status quo rely on certain narratives to support their position.  We will outline, and criticize, those narratives in section (3) below.  But first we need to recall how we got to where we are now.  It was for two reasons: (1) a design accident and (2) a unilateral assertion of power by the US government.

1. Design accident

The internet was not designed as a public network.  Its initial design was intended for a private, closed network.  The initial design did not include security (security was supposed to be end-to-end) nor billing.

End-to-end security has proven difficult to implement, so the internet suffers from spam, cybercrime, and pervasive surveillance.

Since there is no detailed billing, the receiver-pays model predominates: users pay flat rate charges.  Those who offer services (such as search engines) must derive revenue through indirect means, in particular targeted advertising.  Capacity management can be an issue, and entities that have significant market power try to pass their costs along to other entities, leading to calls for network neutrality regulation.  But the real debate should be about whether infrastructure is a natural monopoly and, if so, how it should be provided, with functional separation being perhaps the best solution.

2. Unilateral assertion of US power

During the early years, management of internet names and addresses was provided by an individual funded by the US government.  As the network grew, it became apparent that the central coordination function could not be handled by a single person, and that rather more sophisticated procedures and processes would probably have to be developed and implemented to ensure proper coordination.

Consequently, the Internet Society, and other organizations, facilitated a process that resulted in certain recommendations.  However, the US government unilaterally rejected those recommendations and proposed instead a different approach, which led to the creation of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).

In the approach initially proposed by the United States, its role, as a government, would have been phased out relatively rapidly.  But that did not happen and the US, as a government, retained a priviliged role.  Not surpringly, this led to criticism from other governments, with explicit discussions of the matter taking place at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in 2005, and ever since.

3. Narratives that defend the status quo

The first and foremost narrative used to defend the status quo is that it is all about preserving freedom of speech.  But it is widely accepted that offline rights apply equally online, so the restrictions on offline freedom of speech allowed under international human rights law apply equally well to online speech.  And indeed all countries restrict freedom of speech to some extent, even if the US does restrict it less than most other countries.

If one really wished to promote online freedom of speech, then one would seek to reduce the offline speech restrictions provided for by national and international law.  Or, at a minimum, seek to introduce a new international legal provision reducing restrictions at least for online speech.  And indeed we have proposed such a provision[1].

Another narrative is that it is important to protect “the unique multi-stakeholder model” that has been so successful to date.  But the internet has grown more slowly than has the mobile network, it is becoming increasingly centralized and dominanted by powerful quasi-monopolies, and it has been plagued by the same issues for the past 20 years: asymmetric role of the US government compared to other governments, complaints about the finacial flows (in particular the relatively higher cost in developing countries), and lack of security (leading to spam, etc.)[2].  The multi-stakeholder model has not successful addressed those issues[3].

Yet another narrative is that in the “multi-stakeholder model” all players should have equal rights, in particular private companies should participate in decision-making on an “equal footing” with governments.  This in effect gives veto power to private companies.  How could network neutrality regulations ever be agreed in such a setup?

A persisent narrative used by the US government is that there should be “freedom to connect.”  Note that this is not a “right to connect,” the distinction being that if you cannot afford to connect, then that is not necessarily our problem.  So the real goal is to allow more and more people to provide more and more data.  That data can then be used, on the one hand, to generate more and more target advertising and thus more and more profit for the dominant players.  And it can be used, on the other hand, to conduct more and more pervasive surveillance.

So, in reality, those narratives are about maintaining the geo-political and geo-economic dominance of the present incumbents, that is, of the US and its powerful private companies.[4]

For a more detailed exposition and justification of these thoughts, see the cited references, and [5] and [6] and the references in those papers.


[1] See 7.1 of Hill, Richard, 2014. Response to CWG-Internet March 2014 Open Consultation <http://www.itu.int/en/Lists/CWGContributionmar2014/Attachments/25//CWG-March.pdf>

[2] Hill, Richard, 2014.  “The Future of Internet Governance: Dystopia, Utopia, or Realpolitik?”, in Pupillo, Lorenzo (ed.), The global Internet governance in transition , Springer (forthcoming)

[3] Hill, Richard, 2014. “UN Internet Governance Discussion: Why Did It Fail To Agree And Why Will Discussions Continue?”, Intellectual Property Watch, 3 March 2014 <http://www.ip-watch.org/2014/03/03/un-internet-governance-discussion-why-did-it-fail-to-agree-and-why-will-discussions-continue/>

[4] Gurstein, Michael, 2014. “The Multistakeholder Model, Neo-liberalism and Global (Internet) Governance”, Gurstein’s Community Informatics, 26 March 2014 <http://gurstein.wordpress.com/2014/03/26/the-multistakeholder-model-neo-liberalism-and-global-internet-governance/> accessed 27 March 2014.

[5] Hill, Richard, 2014.  “The Internet, its governance, and the multi-stakeholder model”. Info, Vol. 16 No 2

[6] Hill, Richard, 2013. “Internet Governance: The Last Gasp of Colonialism, or Imperialism by Other Means?”, in Weber, R. H., Radu, R., and Chenou, J.-M. (eds) The evolution of global Internet policy: new principles and forms of governance in the making?, Schulthess/Springer.

Early versions of [2], [5] and [6] papers are available at http://www.apig.ch/news


Richard Hill is the principal  of Hill & Associates in Geneva, Switzerland.  He has an extensive background in information systems, telecommunications, negotiation, mediation, and conflict management.  Richard was the Secretary for the ITU-T Study Groups dealing with numbering and tariffing issues, network operations, and economic and policy issues; he was the Secretary for the preparatory process for the 2012 World Conference on International Telecommunications and headed the secretariat team dealing with substantive issues at the Conference.  He has facilitated numerous complex international negotiations regarding sensitive policy matters.

He is a Centre for Dispute Resolution (CEDR) accreditated mediatior, has been trained as a mediator by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), has been trained and certified in family and victim-offender mediator and was for five years the labor-relations mediatior at ITU.  He has taken law courses in Geneva and Lausanne, and has attended, spoken at, and chaired seminars accredited for continuing education by the UK Law Society.  He has published papers on mediation and computer-related intellectual property issues and the standard reference book to X.435.

In addition, Richard has a long professional background in Information Technology (IT) and Telecommunications.  Richard holds a Ph.D. in Statistics from Harvard University and a B.S. in Mathematics from M.I.T.  Prior to his studies in the U.S.A., he obtained the Maturita’ from the Liceo Scientifico A. Righi in Rome, Italy.

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