The Internet’s moorings are detaching from America.
Last week two big decisions — one American and one European – accelerated the de-Americanization of the Internet. Edward Snowden’s revelations catalyzed both.
The U.S. government just chose to hand over its master key to the Internet — the “root-zone-file” — to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a multi-stakeholder non-profit organization, in October of 2015.
The “root zone file” is the essential core-addressing database that the Internet depends upon to ensure any Internet addressed device can link to any other Internet-addressed device.
To understand the significance of this real and symbolic transfer of power, one must appreciate America’s history of Internet stewardship.
The U.S. Defense Department invented Internet protocols in the 1960s. Since then the government has been the owner and steward of the Internet’s connectivity architecture.
In the 1990s, the government privatized the Internet backbone. In 1997, the Clinton administration laid the Internet’s current commercial foundation in The Framework for Global Electronic Commerce. In 1998, it transferred responsibility for the administration of many Internet-related tasks to ICANN.
The ceding of control over the “root-zone-file” database is a big deal. With it America will cede ultimate “ownership” of the Internet’s core to the Internet community-at-large via ICANN.
Practically, this means America will no longer effectively control how the Internet changes or evolves.
Anyone who thinks transferring ownership of the Internet’s proverbial rudder won’t alter the Internet’s long-term trajectory does not understand this change.
America’s stewardship of the Internet for the last twenty years fostered its commercial potential. Consequently, it is no surprise America’s Silicon Valley effectively dominates most every commercial and behavioral aspect of the Internet.
The priorities of a multistakeholder, not-for-profit organization that’s un-tethered from, and unaccountable to, sovereign or commercial interests will prove to have very different priorities than America’s as it tries to incorporate the rest of the world’s conflicting priorities.
What does this mean?
Over time the Internet will become much less American, much more diverse, and vastly more political, both internally and geopolitically. And expect a less American Internet to naturally become less commercial, less Silicon Valley-centric, and less friendly to property.
This unmooring of the Internet from American sovereign control and dominance comes with one last big stewardship caveat from the U.S. government. To affirm “the United States support for the multistakeholder model of Internet governance, [the U.S. government] will not accept a proposal that replaces the [the U.S. government] role with a government-led or an inter-governmental organization solution.”
This is a profound geopolitical change and challenge. It effectively will try to officialize a sovereign-less third global power base separate from national sovereign powers and intergovernmental organizations like the UN.
Thus the Internet’s long-term evolution will now hinge on how much sovereign power the rest of the world is actually willing to cede to, or how much power it tries to take from, this newly empowered sovereign-less polity. Welcome to the Internet realpolitik era.
The second big decision last week that will accelerate the de-Americanization of the Internet was made by the European Parliament.
The European Parliament voted overwhelmingly 621-10 for much stronger data protection (privacy) laws, the first such change since 1995.
It also overwhelmingly backed a resolution calling for the suspension of the U.S.-EU data protection Safe Harbor that lets U.S. firms self-certify as being in compliance with EU privacy law, by a vote of 544-78.
This seminal new data protection law could be a game changer for much of the Internet. While much more remains to be worked out, the EU’s new post-Snowden trajectory is clear.
Essentially, the EU is asserting sovereignty over the European Internet so European data will be subject to EU law and stored in the EU. The law also grants EU citizens the right to demand erasure of their online data for the first time.
To simplify, the EU is calling for a more consumer-centric, opt-in privacy model in stark contrast to America’s ecommerce-centric, opt-out privacy model. This is a frontal assault on Silicon Valley’s privacy-hostile, dominant advertising business model.
So what does this European decision foretell?
A more privacy-friendly Internet is a less American-dominant Internet, a less Silicon-Valley or Big Data driven Internet. Since cloud computing is a euphemism for American-based data centers and data-processing, this new law will likely force a lot more EU-localized data centers.
The real purpose of this new law is not only to protect Europeans’ privacy, but also to create economic opportunity for an indigenous European tech, cloud and Internet sector to succeed.
In sum, the precipitating cause of both of these two decisions is the same – Snowden revelations.
However, the consequential effect of these decisions is the opposite. The U.S. decision cedes its sovereign power to a new sovereign-less power. In contrast, the EU’s decision asserts much more sovereign power over a sovereign-resistant Internet.
As the Internet’s moorings increasingly detach from America, the Internet ship will enter the uncharted waters of Internet realpolitik.
Scott Cleland served as Deputy U.S. Coordinator for International Communications & Information Policy in the George H. W. Bush Administration. He is President of Precursor LLC, a research consultancy for Fortune 500 companies, and Chairman of NetCompetition, a pro-competition e-forum supported by broadband interests.