“Internet Freedom” and Post-Snowden Global Internet Governance

Posted on September 24, 2013


The big story for the 2012 Internet Governance Forum in Baku was the almost overwhelming (and overpowering) emphasis placed by the US government delegation and its corporate allies (primarily Google) and its associates in (primarily US based) Civil Society on what was termed “Internet Freedom” and Multistakeholderism as its primary governance modality.

The campaign was very well orchestrated and coordinated (through the US delegation led by a US Ambassador and the head of the NTIA Lawrence Strickling) who insisted that any “Internet governance” position which included any form of “government involvement” would necessarily imply or result in government’s “takeover” or “control” of the Internet. Further, it was vociferously asserted that any deviation from this path was by definition an infringement of “Internet Freedom” and part of a slippery slope leading to full-on government suppression of “free speech” on the Internet.

Those who pointed out that there already was quite considerable involvement of various governments in various aspects of Internet management were effectively shouted down as being sympathizers with the autocrats and enemies of “freedom” in such states as China, Russia and Saudi Arabia. The overwhelming response was that Internet “governance” was optimal as it was (or at least the corporate, (inter) governmental, and technical mechanisms governing its evolution were optimal); and that the only possible position for “lovers of the Internet” was to support the existing status quo with respect to Internet (“non”) governance.

Precisely what might be meant by “Internet Freedom” apart from rather fuzzy libertarian notions of keeping “the dead hand of government” as far as possible from the Internet as a hub of innovation and enterprise, was never made very clear beyond the level of slogan and exhortation. Rather it was loudly proclaimed that any form of formal governance of the Internet would be the greatest sin that could be perpetrated against the Internet as a burgeoning global infrastructure.

In choosing among the various ways in which “Freedom” might be characterized this lobbying steamroller made quite clear that they were referring to Freedom “from”–government interference, government oversight, government regulation of anything to do with the Internet.  And this theme and its ITU focused counterparts were equally evident at the ITU policy meeting held in Dubai some few months later (the WCIT).

When some few small voices suggested that this full court press in support of “Freedom from” might also mean for example a freedom from the means for countries, particularly Less Developed Countries to introduce some form of taxation on the currently small but rapidly growing flow of Internet based revenues from already impoverished economies to already stupendously wealth private (and primarily US based) Internet corporations; or that there might be something wrong with the current way in which the basic “naming system” of the Internet via ICANN might be structured (as a sub-contractor to the US Department of Commerce); or that some issues such as privacy might require mechanisms for policy development and global enforcement, these comments were met with derision and howls that the authors of such positions were secret sympathizers of communications censors (ComSymps) of those on the other side of the emerging Internet cold war — i.e. the Russia’s, China’s, Saudi Arabia’s of the world.

But that was then and this is now and as startling revelation after revelation tumbles from the thumb drives of Mr. Edward Snowden the import if not the intent of (one hopes) certain of those Internet Freedom warriors (speculating on precisely who knew what, when, and how in this context makes for an interesting exercise) becomes clear.

While so loudly advocating for Freedom “from” (whatever…), the (de facto) Internet Freedom  coalition was in fact, providing the diplomatic cover and lobbying campaign to ensure that no outcome of Internet governance would interfere with what would appear to be the overall US strategy of Freedom “to” — surveille, subvert, suborn and overall embed and maintain (as the NSA so aptly put it)–“total information dominance” of the Internet and all of its various manifestations now and presumably forever, in the service of US “security” and US interests.

Such “security”, it is clear from the Snowden documents, means not only security against terrorism but also it seems (as enabled by the NSA’s surveillance machine) security against potentially independent comment (and ultimately action) by both opposing and allied states; against fair competition since one side has access to all its information and the information from the other side as well; and quite startlingly the security of having  the means to listen in on and ultimately control independent action, comment, commerce, and thought itself not only among “foreigners” (i.e. everyone else) but also even among those (in theory) protected by that most oft cited of documents the US constitution.

That this “Freedom from” campaign has now been fully revealed for what it was (providing the ideological justification for an on-going coup d’etat against the republic of the Internet), leaves the matters of Internet Governance (where this all started) completely up in the air.

But once having been revealed that we are no longer in Kansas and that the wicked witches of the North, South, East and West will be relentless in their pursuit of control including through the use of their boundless financial and technical resources; a response of some sort however reluctantly and with what trepidations seems to be in the cards as per the recent excellent speech to the UN General Assembly by President Rousseff of Brazil.

And so we have the upcoming 8th session of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in Bali with many of the main protagonists having been more or less completely discredited (it might be fun if the same coalition were to try for another round of “Internet Freedom” confabulations but one can’t imagine that even those folks have been sufficiently well trained to carry that one off with a straight face).

So, what will be discussed at the IGF apart from the usual empty rhetoric about capacity building for LDC’s and legitimate campaigns against online skullduggery of the spam, kiddieporn, phishing variety.

Perhaps I could make a modest suggestion for the discussion. Perhaps we could discuss “Internet Freedom” but Internet Freedom in a post-Snowden world and without the hypocrisy and sanctimony of the previous discussions.

Perhaps we could discuss Internet Freedom as Freedom from undue and unaccountable surveillance; Internet Freedom as true Freedom of Expression where the forces of repression whether in Langley or in Moscow or Shanghai are made transparent and accountable; where Internet Freedom is anchored in the rule of law–not the, shall we say, rather “flexible” law of the world’s single superpower, but a rule of law to which all are expected to adhere and where mechanisms are in place to ensure that, to the degree possible, all are responsive and accountable; where Internet Freedom is not just for some but where it’s responsibilities and most importantly its protections are available for all of us — “foreigners” or no — and where all have some degree of input into how those laws are constructed and administered; where Internet Freedom does not mean that actions on and through the Internet will be subverted and directed simply to further enrich the already obscenely enriched, but rather to ensure that the benefits including financial benefits accruing from the Internet serve to reduce global inequalities.

I look for those who a year ago, were so eager to rally forces in support of Internet Freedom, to rally again to this somewhat battered standard; but now, one that is rather less naive and rather more reflective of the underlying reality of this technology enabled world in which we live.