The Open (Internet) Society and Its Enemies: Can Multistakeholderism Survive “Information Dominance”?

Posted on October 18, 2013


Information Dominance

For General Keith Alexander, the head of the US‘s major surveillance agency, the NSA’s fundamental ambition appears to be what he and the US military call “Information Dominance”.

“Information Dominance is the ability to seize and control the information domain “high ground” when, where and however required for decisive competitive advantage… Information Dominance means freedom of action to maneuver and act — conduct offensive and defensive actions, kinetically and non-kinetically — at the intersection of maritime, information and cyberspace domains”

John Arguilla, a leading US cyberwar strategist defines “Information Dominance” as:

“knowing everything about an adversary without allowing the adversary to know very much about oneself.”

We know from the Snowden revelations that the NSA has been attempting to subvert the multistakeholder Internet standards setting processes of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) to allow for internal weaknesses and backdoors to facilitate the insertion of surveillance and presumably other software functionalities. We can, given General Alexander’s apparent fondness for the doctrine assume that this was being done within the overall context of Information Dominance as noted above.

Also, should be noted are the links between the military notions of Information Dominance and the broader Information Technology and corporate sector as per the below:

Information dominance is most often associated with military command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) operations.

Superiority in the generation, manipulation and use of information affords a dominant strategic and tactical military position…

The Board of Directors of NDIA (Nation Defense Industry Association) recently adopted information dominance as a top policy issue for 2002… The goal is to emphasize the role of information as a defense enterprise asset. NDIA has outlined key recommendations that support the goal of achieving and maintaining information dominance.

Spearheading the efforts on this issue is AFEI, an affiliate association of NDIA.

AFEI is also a member of NDIA’s newly formed Coalition for Homeland Security and is working with other members of the coalition to sponsor events jointly, with the objective of integrating information dominance into NDIA programs. AFEI is expanding rapidly through strategic partnerships with organizations such as the Knowledge Management Institute at GeorgeWashingtonUniversity.

Clearly “Information Dominance” is a priority activity at least among certain segments of the USG’s information community and its corporate and academic partners. Precisely how far beyond the somewhat narrower field of military and security applications the doctrine might be applied is not clear from available public documents but the range of partners noted above suggests that it includes at least certain elements of the US corporate and academic communities.

J.C: I actually do believe that civil society and the Internet technical community have some significant common ground in terms of belief in multi-stakeholder principles, and there would be benefit in establishing a common definition (if that is achievable.)

M.G.: I think in most of these discussions both in attempts to define MSism and even in those contexts where the term is being used to describe a process there is an implicit assumption of trustworthiness of the various parties.  That is, there seems to be a belief in/acceptance of the good faith of the various parties — no hidden motives, no hidden agendas, no hidden loyalties or financial (or other) relationships. Thus there seems to be an expectation that people/”stakeholders” are who and what they say they are and that their involvement is transparent and their only specific accountability is what they are presenting through their contribution to the MS process itself.


J.C. I’d have to presume that every party sitting in a discussion has an agenda; it may or may be “hidden” depending the circumstances and awareness of each other, but presumably there is still enough common ground among the declared common goals to make progress, yes? For example, if you invite me as ARIN’s executive to attend a meeting, I’ve pretty much got to carry the objectives given to me by the members and the Board; these may be ‘hidden’ to anyone who hasn’t read our online Internet Governance materials, the Montevideo Statement on Future of Internet Cooperation, etc.  That doesn’t mean bad intent, simply lack of understanding of common goals that might already exist.

J.C.: The point is that if parties get together to work on a collective goal or common purpose, that should suffice to allow to rational discussion to take place, particularly if the time is taken to find common assumptions/principles early in the discussion, which reduces the possibility of working to different ends because of different underlying beliefs.

M.G.:  Without going into it I think if we are going to attempt to define/articulate a realistic and robust “MS process” or definition of MSism we have to take into account the possibility, even the likelihood, that the above set of beliefs does not hold true; that various of the stakeholders for example might not, in John’s terms below, be “work(ing) to collective goal or common purpose” but may rather be working to (non-revealed) purposes of individual, group, corporate, ideological or national self-interest. In fact it may be that the assumption by some of the existence of a “common purpose” could be self-destructively “naïve” and that in some circumstance at least no common goal or purpose does or even could  exist among those who are defining themselves (and being accepted) as “stakeholders”.

J.C.: I have very few ideas on how to address this latter problem (which is not a situation of unknown motivations but actual intentional misrepresentation and/or subterfuge by a participant); my only advice is maximal transparency of process and actively soliciting views and positions so that such discrepancies hopefully reveal themselves over time.

J.C.: For example, as the CEO of ARIN, I can state that fees and services offered by ARIN are set by processes based in our membership and elected Board, which is not the greater Internet community but a more defined subset.  Compare this with the  development of IP address policy, which we believe should be open to all and whose processes should subject to widespread accountability/oversight to Internet community at large.  While it might be favorable in a discussion with civil society for me to try and conflate these two topics to the beneficial inference that ARIN is wonderful and completely guided  by the Internet community at large, it would eventually be shown to be disingenuous given existing documentation and other public statements showing that we strongly feel that our members (who pay our fees) have first and primary say in the services that we offer and fees that we charge.

J.C.: My apologies for the long example, but it is intended to show that getting participants to speak up and “go on record” with their beliefs and assumptions might (over time) provide some protection against actual bad actors in the process.  That’s all I have as a suggestion on this; I’m afraid that defining an MS process that can thrive in the presence of numerous intentionally bad actors may not be readily achievable.

Connecting the dots…  

So lets connect the dots here a bit.  We know that the NSA is working towards a doctrine of “information dominance”.  We also know that in pursuit of that doctrine they have engaged with at least one significant Internet oriented multistakeholder process, that of the IETF’s crypto standards setting. We also know that the USG has placed the Internet as an element of its overall national strategic priorities for economic, security and other purposes.  And finally we know that MS processes themselves as key processes in Internet governance are open to all comers but that participation by those with hidden and ulterior motives — “bad actors” – could (and would) significantly undermine the reliability and effectiveness of MS processes and perhaps to the extent that those processes themselves would not be reasonable to conduct at least in their current form.  This latter would be the case particularly where there might be a real or perceived strategic interest by one or another of the major Internet players/partners.

We also know that the USG, among other players has chosen to articulate a very significant interest in seeing a dominant role for MS processes in Internet governance.

Given what we know now about the reliability and integrity of participation in at least some of those MS processes by some agents of the USG; on what basis can we then proceed with any degree of confidence or trust in any subsequent MS process whose outcome is of any significance? 

Can we in fact proceed or accept the outcome of any MS process without a very close re-examination and structuring of those processes; that is, to develop a means for providing appropriate safeguards against contamination, subversion, distortion or interest capture by or on behalf of one or another of the significant players whose interests in Internet development may be quite the opposite of the open, inclusive, transparent Internet that is the evident goal for most of those particularly from Civil Society who espouse MSism so passionately?