(Whose) Hands off (What) Internet? Some Reflections on WCIT 2012

Posted on December 9, 2012


The usually rather sedate world of Internet Governance (see also my earlier blogpost on this) is currently being roiled by purported conspiracies towards the “take-over” of the Internet by various malevolent forces viz. the governments of Russia, China etc. etc. aided in their dastardly schemes by the current inheritors of the keys and flight plans for the UN’s fleet of black helicopters–the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT-12)

To counter these villains, a Justice League of like minded countries (lead by the superhero itself, the US government) but including various sidekicks (mostly from the OECD); corporate Silver Surfers such as Google; and even the Clark Kent’s of the world in the person of various elements of global Civil Society has been created.  They have all come together in a massive “Hands off the Internet” (HOI) campaign which was sufficiently popular to have, for perhaps the first time in recent years resulted in a unanimous vote of the US Congress in support.

And of course, they are right — no one in their right minds wants anti-democratic Russia, or Great Firewall China, or 13th century Saudi Arabia dictating what goes over the Internet or as the term goes, “governing the Internet”.

But equally of course, no responsible party with any knowledge of the Internet really believes in the catch-phrase “Hands off the Internet”–there are too many hands/agencies/even national and global organizations currently with their “Hands on the Internet”–the Internet Society (ISOC), the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the Regional Internet Registries (RIRs), and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) and so on to name a few. And any reasonably knowledgeable and responsible person will, of course, acknowledge this in informal discussion.

In fact, the issue isn’t “Hands off the Internet” but rather “whose” hands “off (or on) the Internet” and “which part of the Internet” should one want to keep various of the villains’ hands off of… And that is where things start to get a bit sticky.

The idea behind the “Hands off the Internet” campaign is based on the notion that there are shared values among the campaigners concerning what the Internet is and how it should operate — openness, transparency, freedom of speech, accessibility and so on — but at the heart of the campaign would appear to be a fundamental lack of clarity and failure to distinguish between “values” and “interests”.

Clearly the hundreds of thousands, even millions of individual Internet users who have engaged in the people’s crusade component of the “HOI” campaign have been mobilized based on a perception that they are espousing and supporting these shared “values” concerning the current status and future development of the Internet.

But what of Google, one of the primary corporate backers and promoters of the HOI/”Internet Freedom” campaign.  Are they, in truly populist fashion simply articulating through their massive online campaign and extremely active lobbying program, the values of their users (and perhaps their employees/founders — remember “don’t be evil”).

Well, in fact, things aren’t quite that straightforward.  Google as with most of the major US-based global Internet firms have something of an Internet related tax problem.  Being global in a cyberworld without boundaries they are able to move their revenues and costing around the world more or less at will to find those countries which have the most beneficial tax regimes (the least amount of tax related Internet “hands on”).

In doing so, they have, according to authorities in now multiple countries (Australia, France, Germany, Italy, UK) been engaging in quite significant tax evasion if not outright (criminal) tax avoidance. Equally, in several countries Google has run afoul of local concerns (and regulations) with respect to payments for copyright materials and have acted (or been prevented from acting) in a manner so as to disrupt local business categories (e.g. newspapers) that in some countries are seen as being of strategic national significance.  And these and similar globally significant Internet “management” issues are popping up almost daily.

So whatever, the “values” position of Google’s owners, staff and users — and one can’t comment on those — a general position of “Hands off the Internet” is one that can only benefit, and quite directly Google’s business and financial “interests” and the interests of its managers and stockholders.  Google has quite specific financial and business interests in keeping “Hands of the Internet” whether or not those are the hands of the nasty villains or of the guys with the white hats many of whom are already keeping their “hands off”.

And what of the US government, another tireless and exceedingly outspoken advocate of “HOI”.  Well, as it happens the US as well is doing extremely well off the Internet as it currently operates — with only certain hands operating in certain Internet areas. Thus campaigns to ensure that other hands are kept off the Internet and out of other areas where for example, countries might want to interpose barriers to “free commerce” to ensure a role for national companies; to provide a support for local business models; to introduce barriers to reinforce local cultures and languages and so on; are not enabled by or are actively restricted by international agreements  Thus ensuring a “hands off” in all areas which might interfere with a “business as usual” model i.e. a model which is providing highly favourable returns to the US and to US based companies–most of the major corporations involved in the Internet being US based, is clearly not in the “interests” of the US.

As well, of course, with the Internet “status quo”/default goes a huge number of advantages for the US in terms of the location of skilled employment, outside investments in new enterprises, spin off of technical enterprises, generation of new ideas and on-the-job training of new entrepreneurs, support for security initiatives, global status, and (yes) tax revenues.  Clearly it is very much in the “interests” of the US that whatever regulation of governance that is applied to the Internet is consistent with the framework within which the US has achieved its current Internet dominance and the last thing they want to enable (or allow) is a governance or regulatory framework that would, for example, enable the development (behind tariff or other barriers) of enterprises that might be competitive with the current dominant US incumbents.

None of this is to say that the world isn’t a better place because of the Internet; nor that the world shouldn’t thank and be grateful to the US for the Internet as we currently know it, and acknowledge that to date it has been a largely (but by no means exclusively) US based development; or that Google is a marvellous company and its functionalities and services are an enormous contribution.

Nor is it to argue that the “values” being espoused by the “Hands off the Internet” campaign are not one’s that many, including myself, would share.  But rather it is to say that the failure of those advocating for a “Hands off the Internet”position, to acknowledge that many “hands” are already on the Internet; that some might reasonably disagree as to whether those are the only or the most legitimate hands to be directing the future development of the Internet at this stage; or that there might be areas where additional “hands” might move onto the Internet in ways equally legitimate to those areas where hands are currently directing and massaging Internet development. This absence is a sign of either a deep failure of perception by many of those who should know better and/or of a deep cynicism among those who do know better but choose to obscure the reality of an interest based set of actions behind a moralistic fog.

If the government and corporate HOI folks had in fact, been interested in “values” rather than “interests” they would have gone beyond simple sloganeering and personal and institutional vilification to articulate a broader vision of what type of global Internet governance regime they would like to see based on those values and recognizing that while many are benefiting from the default/status quo, many are not.  By articulating a vision of a truly global and globally beneficial Internet based on values and not exclusively on interests — one where the Internet is dedicated to the global public interest and is recognized (and governed) as a global public good — they would have shown a true leadership and would indeed have been able to mobilize a global people’s army and not simply one representing the currently benefited and entitled.

I guess, I’m most disappointed with Civil Society’s contribution. One needn’t be surprised that nation states and companies act in their own interests, in fact one is probably more surprised when they don’t, but Civil Society is in theory at least, meant to be espousing and representing the public interest and public values and global Civil Society should thus be representing the global public interest and global values.  In fact, CS has been among the least reflective and most ardent of the Justice League posse — exhorting their followers/members to petition, send emails, tweet, even (via Anonymous) “attack” the evil doers in their UN/ITU virtual web redoubts.

That a significant component, particularly but not exclusively of US based Civil Society with an interest in these areas is now obtaining funding from Google (or via the US State Department’s Internet Freedom Program), may of course, be purely coincidental but the almost uniform lack of a reflective values based analysis and critique of current and future global Internet regimes is I think a significant failure for Civil Society and belies its claims to a position of responsibility in the multi-stakeholder governance regime which they/we are so actively promoting.