Muscling in on the Internet

The WikiLeaks drama launched a re-evaluation of how the United States manages classified information, but it also raises important questions about the role of the Internet in international affairs. This little-discussed second issue may have long-term implications for the cyber world.

At its core, the web is about the instantaneous dissemination of information, a phenomenon that adds value to economies, and feeds itself: more information leads to more users who in turn contribute more information. This virtuous cycle requires open access and freedom of participation. It is no coincidence that a free and democratic society developed and commercialized the web, nor that most Internet innovation — from Netscape and Google to Facebook and Twitter — has occurred in the United States.

Such innovations bring more than wealth; they also undermine efforts to manage the flow of information in countries that wish to control it. This ability to open closed societies and facilitate discussions of democratic principles in nations where such dialogue is a crime has clearly strengthened America’s diplomatic hand.

Consequently the United States has consistently — across the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations — promoted standards and governance that allow the Internet to function without government intervention. This approach has largely insulated the Internet from meddling by governments who would prefer a less open flow of information.

A key link between the U.S. government and Internet governance is a contract between the Commerce Department and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a quasi-independent body that manages the assignment of Internet addresses. Through ICANN, the U.S. government oversees, but does not control, critical rules that govern the Internet. The U.S. position is that ICANN should be free to do what is technically best for the Internet and its users, not what is politically expedient for the U.S. or the multitude of other nations connected to the Internet.

The massive disclosure of State Department cables by WikiLeaks poses a subtle challenge to our national resolve to preserve this hands-off policy. Secretary of State Clinton’s remark following the disclosures that the WikiLeaks were “an attack on the international community” certainly reflects the alarm felt in many capitals. While this statement was not intended to signal a break from the strong U.S. policy of Internet openness, nevertheless the fact that the Internet enables WikiLeaks is not lost on the opponents of openness. To them, WikiLeaks is one more indication of a need to subordinate Internet governance to international oversight.

The WikiLeaks disclosures are “informational attacks” via the medium of cyberspace; they are not “cyber attacks” in which the functioning of the Internet itself is compromised. A cyber attack typically leads to service interruptions or degradation of the network, and defending against it may involve government actions. Informational attacks occur in a well-functioning information system operating under a policy of openness and non-intervention. This is a crucial distinction whose deliberate blurring plays into the hands of nations that would prefer more political control over the Internet.

Unfortunately, political interference is exactly what many other countries are working to achieve. In its effort to gain more control over the flow of information, Russia has pressed the United Nations to expand its authority over the Internet. Using the need for enhanced cyber security as an excuse, Russia has proposed dramatically expanded direct international oversight over Internet governance. Nor is Russia alone in this effort. In our direct experience a majority of U.N. member states view any attack via the Internet, whether a hacker disrupting government systems or a dissident posting critical opinions, as a security concern worthy of government intervention.

The leaked State Department cables indicate the remarkable dedication of U.S. officials to uphold our national values. As Renaud Girard of Le Figaro noted: “What is most fascinating is that we see no cynicism in U.S. diplomacy…They really believe in democracy and human rights.” This sincere belief in the singular importance of a free and open society led the United States to create a structure that manages the Internet without destroying it. As we respond to the concerns raised by WikiLeaks, we must not allow this structure to be undermined by the less-than-ideal motives of others who would place responsibility for Internet governance in the hands of the United Nations.

John H. Marburger, III served as Science Advisor to President George W. Bush and headed the U.S. Delegation to the U.N.’s World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS). He currently serves as Vice President for Research at Stony Brook University and is a senior advisor to the American Futures Project.

Richard M. Russell served as U.S. Ambassador to the U.N.’s International Telecommunications Union (ITU) treaty-writing conference on wireless communications (known as the WRC). He currently serves as director of the American Futures Project.