Is There a Global Internet Community?

Posted on March 31, 2015

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Among the favourite nostrums/memes rampant among those who present themselves as being the surrogates for a non-existent global Internet Governance system is the notion of a “Global Internet Community”.  Notably this now seems to be replacing “multistakeholderism” as the favourite meme of the day among these nattering nabobs. And it is easy for the mind and the tongue to slip gracefully and seamlessly over this seemingly innocuous and empty phrase and move on to other meatier subjects based on unspoken assumptions that of course, we all agree that there is a “Global Internet Community” and we all know what it is, where it is, who it is and what the normative basis of this community might be.

Further we know instinctively (who needs to ask) how this “Global Internet Community” would manifest itself in any of the areas in which it is being invoked as a sort of talisman against the rampaging critical hordes (those who still remember Snowden/the NSA; who find Facebook’s latest blitzkrieg on personal privacy, offensive; and who don’t own stock in Apple computer or the latest hot IPO).

I raise this because as I sit here listening remotely to the World Economic Forum/ICANN/CGI.Br  Net Mundial Initiative constitutional congress err… coordinating committee meeting discussing its “constitution” err… founding document, it seems that every second phrase and certainly every second speaker is referring to this mythical beast, the “Global Internet Community” to justify whatever anti-democratic err pro-multistakeholder outrage they are attempting to impose into the current global Internet governance discussion.

While it may have made some sense to talk about a “Global Internet Community” when the Internet consisted of a half dozen profs and their respective grad students it hardly makes any sense when talking about those 9 billion or so people in the world who, whether they want to or not, whether they are aware or not, whether they even connect or not, find their individual and collective living circumstances and even to a degree their individual and collective opportunities and fates inextricably intertwined with the Internet–how the Internet operates (or doesn’t), how it is controlled (or isn’t), how it is surveilled (or the surveillance is tempered with oversight or not) and perhaps most important how its benefits are distributed or monopolized and in what way and by whom.

Talking about the Internet as a “community” is a cute little device to deflect and mask the rather more complex and increasingly ugly reality which is in fact emerging in the Internet world. A “community” by any possible definition is characterized by shared values and ways for expressing and realizing those values, a shared vision of the future, common objectives, and a deep sense of commonness—that somehow we are all in this together and need to act in these areas in such a way that our common values can be realized.

So where is the commonness of values with the USA/NSA which is intent on knowing everything about everybody via the Internet; with the Great Firewall of China which is intent on excluding whatever information isn’t acceptable today to the ruling clique in Beijing; with Silicon Valley billionaires and their adolescent courtiers looking to make their physical space and the space that they occupy anywhere else in the world a paradise for white male privilege; between zero hour contractors and those who are getting rich off their labour; and so on and so on?

The point is that there is no such thing as “the Global Internet Community” except as an ideological convenience for those who wish to proceed as though the Internet has not become a place where very real social, political, economic and cultural contestations are, will and must take place. As has been elsewhere noted there are very very real and extremely significant “stakes” on the table when it comes to the future of the Internet and there are very very real and powerful “stakeholders” attempting to exert, maintain and transfer their control, power and privileges in this sphere as in others. But this is perhaps of more significance in this sphere than in others given that the Internet provides the substrate on which so much of other activities are taking place.

The notion of community implies a commonality of interests and that out of this commonality, consensus can be found to address issues of common concern. But it is now overwhelmingly evident that apart from ensuring the continued effective technical functioning of the Internet as a common resource for all, there are effectively no common interests on the basis of which a “Global Internet Community” could be derived. Any attempt to suggest that there are such commonalities is clearly done with the intention of slip sliding over the very real clash of interests that are emerging in the Internet sphere between the powerful and privileged, between monster Internet corporations conducting tax dodging on a truly historic scale, between the Silicon Valley overlords selling our privacy to the highest bidders, between the security agencies and those who are using their services to pursue economic and political agendas — these being the Digital 1%–and on the other side is most everyone else in the world.

As I sit here listening to the NMI discussion proceeding, it is not surprising to hear the governmental representatives of the US, China, and France and their academic and NGO  camp followers supporting these willful illusions. It is rather more surprising to hear and watch Dilma’s government of Brazil which historically owes its governmental role to breaking through similar delusions in Brazil and the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) which historically has taken strong and forceful positions in support of Social Justice going along with this collective miasma.