Some Critical Post-Snowden Thoughts On Public Policy and Globalization

Posted on February 17, 2014


(Keynote address given to International Conference on “Public Policy and Governance, in the Era of Globalization” 12, 13, & 14th February, 2014 at Central University of Kerala, Kasaragod, India.)

I’m delighted to have the opportunity to be with you for this most interesting and significant event and I’m particularly delighted to see all the students here as it is they who will soon be inheriting the world that we have made for them and an interesting if very complex world it has become.

I, along perhaps many of you, have been following the revelations from Mr. Edward Snowden concerning mass surveillance by the USA’s National Security agency and certain of its allies including my own country Canada.

While many had for some time suspected at least some of the things that Mr. Snowden has revealed few had anticipated its extent or depth. His information has provided a simple public confirmation of what had been our worst fears concerning how the Internet could and has been turned into a a vast platform for completely, unchecked and unsupervised mass surveillance. This has, I believe, startled and shocked the world and mobilized many to attempt to respond.

I consider his revelations as providing a point of fundamental change with respect to our approach and understanding of the Internet and because of this our knowledge and understanding and ultimately values and attitudes towards public policy and governance both national and global.

Let me explain. Until Mr. Snowden forcibly ended our collective innocence and our, mistaken, but certainly pervasive naivety concerning the Internet, most I believe, saw the Internet as a benign support and champion for civil society, for transparency, for challenges to entrenched regimes whether political or intellectual. In this of course, we had the examples of the events in Tunisia and Egypt, the mobilization in opposition to various anti-democratic measures in several countries, the increased transparency which the Internet apparently has afforded us among other clearly positive effects.

What Mr. Snowden showed however, was that while on the surface the Internet was a benign supporter of the public good, at a deeper and more powerful level it was anything but and that with the Internet as with other areas of technology it is necessary to proceed with extreme caution and from a position of pervasive distrust and suspicion.

Given the possibilities of total electronic surveillance (in the immortal words of General Alexander, the current head of the NSA—Total Information Dominance)–and the absence of any effective controls on the use of surveillance information for whatever purposes, the possibilities (and temptations) for the misuse of this information are effectively overwhelming. Those with access to this information are in a position to put this information to use for national or corporate economic advantage, for political manipulation, for individual targeting, for blackmail or personal manipulation and even when used as a mechanical input into drone warfare as a substitute for judge and jury in the rendering of the most potent of judgments and penalties—that of death.

And all of this while remembering that there are at the moment, no effective safeguards or oversight mechanisms for these processes, and that the technology driving these possible and likely outcomes is both coming rapidly down in price and in many cases is available in commercial form in the software marketplace for any corporate or governmental end-user with an interest and some spare cash.

We are thus as citizens, as users of the Internet, as recipients of Internet enabled public services and as participants in Internet enabled policy and other processes individually but more significantly, collectively, at risk of having this/our information used in various overt and covert ways for purposes and towards ends which in many, even most, cases we would not agree to if given the opportunity to comment or respond.

Given the manner in which the Internet has come to provide the platform or delivery system for so many public programs and the platform for the entire range of public policy discussions and increasingly for governance itself the reality that the Internet is subject to the possibility of external intervention/subversion in the interests of not only the US but also of other national interests and bodies and even possibly corporate interests presents those concerned with such activities and such outputs, with a considerable dilemma and a cause for very great concern and alarm.

How are they or in reality, we, to respond? Can it be business as usual or must there be some external process of verification, of assurance that these/our processes are not being undermined or misdirected and that their outcomes are in fact serving the purposes publicly indicated for them and not other clandestine or indirect purposes of governmental control or corporate or individual advantage.

It is here where principles and practices of “openness”, of public scrutiny, of transparency, of formal means of ensuring accountability become necessary; on the one hand to build and rebuild trust but more importantly, on the other hand to ensure that at least at a formal and overt level measures are in place that allow for some degree of democratic oversight and control.

However, in societies and polities where there are vast differences in wealth and power including in the opportunities of access to and the use of ICTs, such an “openness” regarding these measures may in themselves not be sufficient to ensure democratic accountability. In fact, for democratic accountability to truly prevail supplements must be provided for enabling the broadest basis of participation and effective use of this transparency by the widest range of citizens including the illiterate and the economically and socially marginalized. This can and should be done through the provision of specialized training, facilitated access, appropriate measures of funding support and so on—which I should add is the very substance of Community Informatics.

The Internet is becoming and in a number of instances has already become the primary delivery system for global commerce and a primary driver for globalization.

Thus the global governance of the Internet has become a crucial element in shaping the manner in which globalization in its various elements and forms is evolving, as well as in attempting to manage and direct the impacts of the Internet both positive and negative.

Discussions in the area of global Internet Governance have often taken place behind a “cloud” of technical jargon; waves of incomprehensible acronyms and abbreviations; and diplomatic, often coded language and positions masking true interests and objectives. Until recently, in fact until the Snowden revelations, there has been a somewhat jagged division between the position of the Developed Countries on these matters which might be summed up by the phrase “Internet Freedom” and an opposing position promoted by those countries collaborating (for their own specific national motivations) on what often has been characterized as a position in support of Internet “control”.

Supporters of “Internet freedom” argued that the magic of the Internet and the reasons for its astonishing growth and overwhelming economic and social contribution has been precisely because there has been so little overt control or management or governance imposed on the Internet’s evolution. Those opposing that position have argued that the actual and potential impacts of the Internet on their specific national circumstances was such as to require intervention and control as for example, to prevent the undermining of traditional values and religion (in Saudi Arabia), the undermining of “national harmony” (in China), and the presentation and enabling of alternative and unwelcome value systems (for Russia).

Standing somewhat on the sidelines in this discussion and debate for various reasons were many of the countries which had traditionally been part of the non-aligned block including other countries constituting the BRICS such as India, South Africa and Brazil and most of the countries of the Global South. In most instances they have taken little part in the discussions and often have deferred to others such as their local technical community or the private sector in the determination of their national and international policies.

What we learned from Mr. Snowden however, has irrevocably changed this discussion. Those advocating an “Internet Freedom” position – primarily the USA, the UK, the EU and my own country Canada, have been forced to acknowledge that while on the one hand they (and primarily the USA) were publicly so strongly advocating for an Internet without controls or formal governance; on the other hand they were covertly acting in exactly the opposite direction. In fact, this alliance has been acting  covertly to introduce measures and practices that in effect gave unrestricted (and unsupervised) access to and effective control over the information flowing through the Internet. This in turn, has given them enormous unchecked power as a support to their actions in promoting their own direct political, economic and even commercial interests. Thus the proponents of “Internet Freedom” were revealed as in effect, adopting the same position as those that they were overtly opposing but in this case being in a position to actually enforce what they were (not) preaching.

These startling revelations including one’s specific to covert surveillance in individual countries such as India had their most dramatic impact when it was revealed that the private conversations of the President of Brazil and the Chancellor of Germany had both been monitored for years. The direct experience of these two individuals with the use of these kinds of tactics by despised totalitarian regimes – in the one instance the dictatorship by the Generals in Brazil (during which time Pres. Rousseff had been tortured) and by the Stasi in East Germany where Chancellor Merkel had lived her pre-German-unification life, gave responding to these revelations a particular and personal urgency.

But this presents to the world and particularly those countries such as India which have not had a close alignment with either of the two Internet Governance camps a dilemma as to how to proceed. Clearly the benefits of the Internet are too great and the future opportunities too attractive to wish to do anything which would be destructive of the goose laying these formidable golden eggs. On the other hand the likelihood, even the inevitability of the covert manipulation of the content flowing through the Internet by uncontrollable forces acting in a single national (or collective) interest, is equally intolerable.

This is a true dilemma with no easy or obvious way forward and have to be understood along with the siren calls to go with the flow of the status quo, the overwhelming likelihood of attempts at manipulation both overt and covert, and the very real risks attendant on making the wrong decision being ever present.

Even the modalities for arriving at these ways forward are in contest. The previous agency with responsibilities in the telecommunications area, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) has not managed to establish a universally accepted presence in the Internet realm (the reasons for this are in some dispute but likely are the result of processes of national interests similar to those being made evident by Mr. Snowden) being pursued at the expense of collective global well-being.

Overall however, the multilateral system has not demonstrated a great capacity for effective interventions in areas as fast changing and contentious as Internet Governance and particularly one where there is a quite evident need to include a much wider range of voices and active involvements and commitments than is generally the case (including from the Technical Community, civil society and the corporate sector globally). Nevertheless, doing nothing is not an option either, given what we now know of the degree to which the status quo has been subverted and manipulated in support of one specific set of national interests.

There is a thus a clear need for innovation, perhaps with technology supports, towards identifying ways for enhancing democratic participation and modes of governance and to shift national methods of democratic governance and participation into the era of globalization and the blurring and churning of national boundaries and jurisdictions.

The preferred option of those who are more or less satisfied with the status quo in global governance including in the Internet area (with some caveats concerning the intrusion of the instruments of mass surveillance) would appear to be “multistakeholderism”. In this model there are more or less formal processes of policy consultation and ultimately decision-making which are removed from the sphere of national governments or multilateral institutions and shifted to mechanisms where groupings of governments, the private sector and civil society as “stakeholders” in these decisions proceed as more or less equals in responding to the policy issues arising from the Internet.

While somewhat attractive in theory the difficulties of operationalizing this into mechanisms with appropriate degrees of transparency, accountability, diversity, inclusiveness, and with sufficient safeguards to prevent subversion and capture would, based on current performance, appear to be overwhelming. And overall, there are the assertions by many of its proponents that multistakeholderism is an enhancement of, or even substitute for democratic processes–which given the current most prevalent model would give private corporations an equal say with democratically elected governments (and even veto power) in what are indicated as being “consensus” decision making processes. This of course, is deeply unsettling given the massive interests (and benefits) that are involved and the fragility or even absence of suitable safeguards or mechanisms to ensure transparency of operations. As well it must be noted that current multistakeholder processes suffer severely from the current ad hoc and essentially irresponsible manner with which normal processes of internal governance and decision making within individual “stakeholder” groups are developed and implemented.

What at first appeared to be a very positive step forward, but which now for a variety of reasons seems to have become somewhat tarnished due to its own problems of internal governance and transparency of processes, is an initiative launched by the President of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff to hold a Global Multistakeholder Meeting on the Future of Internet Governance (NetMundial) at the end of April this year. The intent with this meeting is to attempt to find agreement among other areas, on overall principles for Internet Governance. This approach suggested that what was being pursued was the longer term development of some sort of global framework agreement on Internet Governance which would obligate the signatory governments to certain standards of behaviour and modes of operation and decision-making with respect to the Internet and of which the agreement on overall principles would be an important first step.

While itself being subject to various potential difficulties (being ignored or unenforceable being the most obvious) nevertheless such an agreement would provide a set of global standards to which the various “stakeholders” and others could hold governments (and one would also hope, private corporations) to account and including in areas such as surveillance via the Internet.

Whether such an outcome is now possible is somewhat in doubt but if it isn’t moved forward through the Brazil sponsored meeting it will certainly be a continuing focus of efforts for days to come.

And so, as we are pursuing our research and discussions concerning “public policy and governance in the era of globalization” we must be continuously mindful of the fragility of the base on which so much of these processes of globalization rests. Further there is a continuing need for active intervention by parties of good will whose interests are with the public good, human rights and social justice and who recognize the need for public policy in support of effective governance if the public good is to be successfully realized in the midst of these massive changes and opportunities.

We can no longer, I believe, assume that the public interest is being automatically protected in the course of the operation and evolution of the Internet. While this is disappointing and while it places huge burdens on those with active concerns in these areas, it is always best to proceed in full and realistic knowledge as to what hurdles need to be overcome and what distances need to be crossed to achieve our mutually agreed upon objectives.