Civil Society and the Emerging Internet Cold War: Non-Alignment and the Public Interest

Posted on February 11, 2013

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As is widely known in circles with an interest in Internet governance issues there was a major split at the recent World Congress on International Telecommunications (WCIT) meeting.  89 countries voted for a set of measures moving the ITU into a more pro-active role with respect to global Internet governance and 55 countries led by the USA walked out (or at least chose to not sign onto these measures). The signers were a bit of a hodge podge of countries but included Russia, China, Saudi Arabia and Iran whose resolutions the USA led faction interpreted (or chose to interpret) as promoting a dangerous intrusion of governments into areas of Internet management up to and including measures restrictive of free speech/expression.

The issues have been widely and intensely covered elsewhere but one of the most interesting continuing reverberations from the meeting and its outcome has been the introduction of the meme of the “Cold War” as identifying the two sides. One side actively was presenting itself as supporting “Internet freedom” and the other side allowing itself to be understood as supporting “state intervention” into the operations of and activity on the Internet.

recent article by Alexander Klimburg carries the analogy of the Cold War even further, putting the overall discussion into the context of the breakdown of the WW II great alliance and the rise of the Cold War following the Yalta conference. Klimburg characterizes the two clashing Internet “sides” as the “cybersovereigntists” (Russia, China, Saudi Arabia etc.); contrasting these to the “liberal democracies” (the USA, the UK and so on)–with the “cybersovereigntists” advocating for a stronger role for the state in the governance of the Internet and the liberal democracies arguing (at least at the rhetorical level) for a “Hands off the Internet/Internet Freedom” (HOI) position.

In fact of course, the two positions are nowhere near as clear cut as Klimburg (or most of the others using this analogy) make out or as advocates at least, of the HOI position would have one believe.  In addition to the positions noted above, the cybersovereigntists include a number of those whose primary concern is that of ensuring the widest possible access to the Internet (digital inclusion) and to the economic benefits that are accruing as a result of Internet activity; and the Hands Off position of no regulation of the Internet, is notably one that also appears to support the specific interests of certain countries and corporations for whom Internet regulation might represent additional taxation, reduced profits, and a reduction in the dominance of certain nationally based Internet corporations and so on.

It appears almost certain that this division and the related “Internet Cold War” is likely to continue through the series of ITU related meetings to the 2014 Plenipotentiary conference where ITU governance issues themselves will be discussed, into the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) +10 review process and the WSIS Summit meeting itself in 2015.

This being the case and with the increased visibility and significance of Civil Society (CS) in these forums resulting from the increased support for multistakeholderism as a broad Internet governance framework–the question becomes what should be CS’s position with respect to this Cold War and the alignment of forces that it represents.

The position overall of CS in the WCIT meeting, evidently without a great deal of reflection or internal consultation, was to support the Internet Freedom/Hands off the Internet position primarily from a “free expression/free speech” position (or perhaps better, from a position rejecting those who might wish to restrict free expression on the Internet).  This of course, whether by accident or design, put CS at WCIT in direct alignment with the policy stance of the US government (and its allies) and of the US corporate-led anti-ITU–Hands off the Internet/Internet Freedom–campaigns.

This alignment as well, isn’t all that surprising as it is a reflection of the links–financial and otherwise between certain elements of digital civil society and their generational and cultural counterparts in the technical and Internet enterprise communities. That this particular US government and corporate “hands off” position is fundamentally anti-statist and libertarian in the context of the current US political cauldron might perhaps surprise certain elements of CS but is quite consistent with the quasi-libertarian Internet culture of Silicon Valley and the multiple mini-Silicon Valleys around the world.

However, now, as we are seeing the ramping up for the next two years of jousting between the Internet Cold War disputants it is time for CS to reflect on and discuss it’s position and to come up with a stance which is rather more in keeping with the fundamental role of CS in relation to the Internet which was perhaps best articulated in the CS Declaration to the World Summit on the Information Society (2003).  Of course, many things have changed and evolved since 2003.  At that time there was hardly any attention paid to broadband and none to mobiles, censorship on the Internet (and the related “free expression”) was not a pressing issue and arguments concerning “openness” and “peer to peer” were largely confined to the technical community.

What hasn’t (or at least shouldn’t have) changed however, is the commitment of CS to a “people-centred, inclusive and development-oriented Information Society, where everyone can create, access, utilize and share information and knowledge, enabling individuals, communities and peoples to achieve their full potential in promoting their sustainable development and improving their quality of life, premised on the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations and respecting fully and upholding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights“.

This articulation of the CS position from the 2003 CS declaration would appear to cut across the two Internet camps–including the need both for free expression on the Internet along with an inclusive and development oriented Internet. Given that CS’s commitments would appear to cut-across and include elements of both the sovereigntists and the HOI folks it would seem that the most appropriate position for CS in the emerging “Cold War” is one of “non-alignment” where CS recognizes the validity of certain elements in the stance of both camps including support for free expression and open access on the one hand, and of digital inclusion and a fair distribution of the economic benefits of the Internet on the other; and on the other hand rejects other elements of these camps–attempts to restrict free expression on one side and an absolutist anti-statist anti-regulatory position regarding the governance of the Internet on the other.

But particularly the CS position would be characterized by its commitment to the governance of the Internet as a global public good and to the operation of the Internet in the global public interest. In this way CS would reject support for an Internet dominated by private corporate interests as well as one supporting the interests of control oriented  governments who would use the Internet for repression and as a way to enhance internal control.

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