The True Stakes of Internet Governance

19 January 2015

Many people understand how the Internet has revolutionised society, but have we really grasped the power implications? Richard Hill shows how US policy-makers have used the ad hoc ‘multi-stakeholder’ governance of the Internet for political and economic ends.

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Governance of the Internet is currently in turmoil, to some extent nationally, but to a greater extent in the international arena where the US and its allies work to prevent many of its crucial aspects from being meaningfully discussed in multilateral forums, notably at the UN. This situation has significant impacts on social justice and economic equity, which will only increase in the future.

Our increasing reliance on Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs), which include the use of transnational networks to interconnect personal computers and business computer systems, has important consequences for governments1 and all lines of commerce, in particular finance. The current infor- mation revolution is far more significant than the previous changes induced by telegraphy or telephony. While policy-makers worldwide grasp this, most do not fully see the power implications. In contrast, US policy-makers understand the importance of networks such as the Internet in promoting their country’s geo-economic and geo-political goals.

Many aspects of the Internet continue to be governed by ad hoc entities dominated by US economic interests (or at least those of developed countries), in ways that are almost entirely beyond the control of existing institutions such as the UN’s specialised ICT agency, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), and beyond the control of any national government except the US.

The US is deliberately structuring Internet governance to ensure unrestricted corporate freedom and to favour its own surveillance apparatus to support its foreign policy, under the guise of “combating terrorism”. By the same token, it largely denies that certain services should be public services (or public goods); and rejects any government role in supervising, much less regulating, the Internet.

The power implications of this situation are evident: the US and the private companies it backs have far more say regarding the global Internet than anybody else. And they use this power for political ends (e.g. mass surveillance) and for economic ends (e.g. the very high profits reaped by companies such as Google). For sure the US accepts some international discussions, but only in forums which it expects to dominate, and only to the extent that the discussions conform to its expectations. Indeed the US openly uses its political power in the forums where these matters are discussed, attempting to impose trade and investment policies that will favour its private companies, blatant examples being discussions within the World Trade Organisation, and, allegedly, the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Investment and Trade Partnership.

And it uses a human rights discourse, in particular freedom of speech and the spectre of other govern- ments attempting to control the Internet for censorship reasons or to stifle innovation, to mask its own human rights violations, in particular the denial of democratic governance, the imposition of US laws on the citizens of foreign countries and mass surveillance. Moreover the trade deals that the US is using to further corporate interests stymie aspirations for transnational economic equity.

Despite much rhetoric about openness, participation, accountability and democracy, the current govern- ance model (called “the multi-stakeholder model”) is largely undemocratic, because it is dominated by a professional coterie of representatives of commercial and political interests.5 And it has been unable to address key Internet issues such as security and affordability of access in developing countries. Mean- while the rest of the world sits on the sidelines, unaware of the stakes or unable to weigh into the debate. After all, why would anybody be concerned about this power imbalance as long as access to the Internet continues to expand; email and the Web remain apparently open; social media is deployed in ever more creative ways; and innovative “free” services become increasingly available?

This paper tries to answer this question, arguing that recent events show clearly why power matters when it comes to the Internet and who benefits from the current imbalance.7 Few would accept a similar level of US domination, say, in electrical power distribution, or water delivery. Concerns are reinforced by possible future uses of the surveillance techniques deployed by the US and other countries,8 which could affect the operation of any devices connected to the Internet: cars, home appliances, etc.

This paper also outlines alternatives for greater social justice, from relatively arcane and technical measures to broad political transformations to achieve democratic Internet governance. As the deficiencies of the current arrangements become more and more evident, these alternatives will hopefully gain traction.

This essay was published in the State of Power 2015.

Pages: 10