The evolution of the Internet has not only changed the world of commerce; it’s revolutionized the diplomatic sphere and helped democratize the foreign policy process.
Up until the end of the 20th century the United States relied heavily on human intelligence to learn the truth about what was happening inside countries that had closed themselves off to the rest of the world. The Internet’s penetration of even the most authoritarian of nations has created a window through which the U.S. and the other democratic nations that make up the first world can see for themselves what is going on.
It is through the Internet that America has been able to follow the story unfolding inside Iran, and it is the Internet through which the western powers were able to confirm that the Assad regime in Syria both had chemical weapons and had used them against opponents of the government. There was no need to wait for a group if inspectors working on behalf of a global body to confirm the allegations. With the web the world could see with its own eyes just what had occurred.
The democratization of information, which is a powerful tool for keeping the peace, is imperiled by the Obama administration’s refusal to resist demands from the International Telecommunications Union, the European Union, Brazil, Russia, China, and other countries to become stakeholders in the process of Internet governance.
In fact plans may already be under way to do just that. No one has yet announced what the United States might have agreed to at a late February meeting in Barcelona, called as a sidebar to the Mobile World Conference. The gathering was organized by the Brazilians to “advance proposals and streamline details for the agenda of the Global Multi-stakeholder Meeting on the Future of Internet Governance, to be held in São Paulo on April 23.” Brazil has been a global champion of the idea that the oversight of the Internet needs to be broadened and that the United States currently has too much to say about it.
The idea of broadened authority has its critics however.
“It is urgent that the federal government and U.S. private sector vigorously oppose all efforts to try and take away U.S.-centered controls over the Internet,” Flash/Critic Cyber Threat News publisher Bill Gertz said.
“Current proposals for Internet governance call for controlling and routing Internet traffic and reviewing content for potential censorship,” Gertz continued. “This would threaten press freedom at a time when democratic forces are widely using the Internet to promote fundamental freedoms against tyranny.”
Ceding oversight over what can go on the web to countries like China and Russia, countries not known for their open attitude toward information, would fundamentally change the way the Internet operates. Instead of being a window on the activities of the world it could be made to function as an extension of state news services that are more concerned with perpetuating cover stories than with exposing the truth. In a very profound way our respect for free speech, free assembly and, where the net is concerned, free and open access is strategically important to U.S. national security.
“Clearly there is a danger of significant censorship of political speech on the internet if nations without fidelity to our Bill of Rights are permitted to impose their values on what is permissible criticism and debate,” former House Science Committee Chairman Bob Walker said. “We should not kid ourselves about that danger when we have seen some of the grossest international violators of human rights given seats on international human rights panels.”
Likewise, the establishment of global protocols by a worldwide body – as opposed to those generated primarily within the United States and influence by American values – would make the world wide web more of a hacker’s paradise than it is today, further jeopardizing U.S. national security interests.
Giving up control of Internet governance to a global body “would undermine U.S. national security by increasing cyber espionage opportunities for adversaries like Russia, China and Iran,” Gertz said.
“It also would increase the risk that foreign states with advanced cyber-attack capabilities will find it easier to conduct cyber-reconnaissance — what the military calls preparation of the battle space for a future conflict that will involve strategic cyber-attacks on critical infrastructures, like electrical grids, financial networks and communications and transportation infrastructures.”
The potential dangers are very real. The Obama White House’s lackadaisical response to the demands by other countries that the structure of Internet governance be changed is yet another example of its overall weakness in foreign policy. The president has already demonstrated his willingness to give up things that are in the United States’ best interests in pursuit of favorable poll numbers overseas.
This is a foolish, even dangerous trade-off. Congress should intervene to make sure that oversight of the web’s functionality remains primarily an American job.
Peter Roff is a former senior political writer for United Press International who appears regularly on the One American News Network commenting on various aspects of the public debate.