The Complex Geopolitics of Internet Governance

Julien Nocetti, a Research Fellow at the Paris-based think tank French Institute of International Relations (IFRI), explores the geopolitics of internet governance. This article was originally posted on April 4, 2014 on the Valdai Discussion Club and can be found here.

On March 14th, the U.S. government announced that it would relinquish management and coordination of web addresses through the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which is indirectly led by the U.S., to a global business community, public interest groups, academics, and governments. This is likely to open a new chapter in the way the internet is “governed.”

This happened a few days before an ICANN meeting in Singapore and, perhaps more importantly, a month before NETmundial, an international conference in Sao Paulo, Brazil on the future of internet governance.

There were three signs that supervision of the internet was about to evolve towards greater internationalization in coming months.

First, U.S. moral leadership on Internet issues was destroyed by Edward Snowden’s leaks regarding Washington’s large-scale cyber surveillance and its intelligence agencies’ collusion with major internet corporations. These revelations killed the idea of allowing any single government to perform this duty, as the U.S. government was supposed to be the ultimate protector of civil liberties at home and overseas. To be absolutely clear, Snowden’s revelations did not deal in any way with root supervision of the Domain Name System (DNS) or ICANN.

Second, Fadi Chehadé was appointed to head ICANN. Chehadé undeniably has a more global and political disposition than his predecessors. In his first speeches he made it clear that ICANN’s exclusive ties with the U.S. government should gradually come to an end.

Third, following the debate organized by ITU in Dubai in December 2012, during which the U.S. gave the impression that nothing would ever change in internet governance, it became imperative to act and propose an alternative internet governance model, especially considering that a number of United Nations-led events on telecommunications and Internet-related matters will be held in 2014-2015.

In other words, controlling the situation appears to be critically important to the U.S., particularly given that confidence in the internet is said to be in decline and governments around the world are trying to assert their own views on the current internet governance model. The U.S. government’s recent decision to internationalize the IANA function also shows that Washington still has the better hand in global game of internet poker. By doing this just before NETmundial, it preempts Germany and Brazil, countries that have recently been the most vocal about the need to reform the current system.

Unlike previous shocks to the system like the WikiLeaks disclosures, the Snowden leaks created an opportunity for political actors to reshape the existing alliances and structures of internet governance. While the internet has continued to rapidly develop, governments and regulators have lagged behind. Part of the explanation lies in the features intrinsic to the medium: its diffuse nature, global reach, jurisdictional complexity, and multistakeholder user-led structure. All of these features hinder central control and complicate the application of traditional state-based regulatory systems.

But in recent years, particularly since the Arab Spring, governments around the world have become more alert to the disruptive potential of access to digital communications. Thus the line between technical and political governance is being increasingly blurred by predominately – but not exclusively – authoritarian governments who fear the “subversive power” of networked technologies both from a political and economic perspective. China and Russia are emblematic. Both countries are quick to point out that 70% of world internet traffic passes through the U.S., which raises issues of sovereignty in cyberspace. They also note that the internet is quickly becoming more international and less Western-oriented. While the reasons for this are largely demographic, there are also profoundly political issues at stake. Russia, like China and some Middle Eastern nations, consider much of the U.S. stance on cyber politics to be hypocritical: while preaching an end to the “digital borders” created by some countries, the U.S. has been collecting and exploiting “big data” without any oversight.

Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff has been successful in shaking up stagnant debates and challenging the status quo. Internet governance provides a good political opportunity for Rousseff to become a global figure, and it will be particularly interesting to observe what positions Brazil – which has a relatively longstanding practice of “multistakeholderism” as well as cyber security and digital sovereignty concerns – takes at upcoming international venues, starting with NETmundial in Sao Paulo.

Russia, which has sought for over a decade to blur the lines between internet governance and cyber security and to establish an exclusive bilateral dialogue with the U.S. on internet-related issues, might well become somewhat marginalized by current developments in internet governance reform. Washington does not seem to consider Russia one of the key “emerging cyber powers” for both diplomatic and commercial reasons, unlike so-called swing countries such as India and Brazil. The polarized debates around the 2012 WCIT in Dubai did not help to soften the narrative prevailing in Moscow on such issues.

In this global governance debate, Europe has largely remained silent. The European Union does not have an adequate conceptual framework, nor has it been able to anticipate evolutions related to the internet, instead letting the Anglo-Saxons set the parameters of internet governance. This has started to change, but European parliamentary elections due to be held in May are likely to slow down the process.

It will alsobe of great interest to see which countries in the post-PRISM world of internet governance grasp the importance of issues like intellectual property rights, information intermediaries, internet standards, and the “internet of things”, on the one hand, as well as the importance of the private sector for internet governance. Today the CEOs of major internet companies are welcomed as heads of states when they travel abroad. These same people respect the borders of disputed territories on their online platforms. Recently, the CEO of Facebook again called the U.S. government a threat to the internet. In some ways, the role of such private actors is reminiscent of the role played by the East India Company in 17th and 18th century Europe: sometimes allied with states, sometimes in opposition, and sometimes indifferent to their laws. By “rebooting” notions of power and its geography, the digital revolution will inevitably replace the concept of sovereignty at the heart of these debates.

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Featured Photo Credit: By Grolltech Creative CommonsLicensing

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