In the first Internet governance conference since the Obama administration announced it would turn over control of the Internet to international authority, multiple governments made not-so-subtle advances toward exercising their control over the future of the Web.
“We would discourage meeting participants from debating the reach or limitations of state sovereignty in Internet policy,” the U.S. State Department said ahead of the NETMundial Global Multistakeholder Meeting on the Future of Internet Governance in Sao Paulo, Brazil last week. Regardless, that’s exactly what representatives from some of the 80 countries in attendance wanted to talk about, according to Wall Street Journal columnist L. Gordon Crovitz.
“The participation of governments should occur with equality so that no country has more weight than others,” Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff said during the opening of the conference.
The Russian representative followed up by objecting to “the control of one government,” and called on the United Nations to decide “international norms and other standards on Internet governance” — a sentiment that echoed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s assertion last week that the Internet was a “CIA project,” and that Russia “must purposefully fight for [its] interests.”
“National sovereignty should rule Internet policy and governance,” the Chinese representative responded. “Each government should build its own infrastructure, undertake its own governance and enforce its own laws.”
A representative from Saudi Arabia agreed, saying “International public policy in regard to the Internet is the right of governments and that public policy should be developed by all governments on an equal footing.”
India’s representative said multiple governments taking a role in Internet governance is “an imperative that can’t be ignored,” while the European Commission’s said “The Internet is now a global resource demanding global governance.”
The conference was originally intended to address the global concerns raised by the year-long revelations detailing the length and breadth of U.S. National Security Agency bulk surveillance programs — the same reason many speculate the Obama administration decided to suddenly cede Internet governance to the “global multi-stakeholder community.”
President Rousseff was one of numerous world leaders revealed to have been the subject of direct NSA surveillance, and the politically appeasing reason many believe the conference was held in Brazil in the first place.
Numerous expert sources from the tech policy community have described the U.S.’s Internet surrender as a gross and dangerous overreaction, and frequently point out that NSA programs had no access to or effect on the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, which has impartially managed the Internet under State Department oversight since 2000.
Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt pointed out the same at the conference, and said that “the issue of surveillance in no way relates to the issues of the governance of the net.”
“I’m stressing this point because sometimes the debate on surveillance is used as an argument to change the governance of the net,” Bildt added.
An agreement written at the conference laid down a set of basic principles for future global Internet governance and oversight including free speech, privacy rights, security and protections for Internet service providers.
“Specifically, the transition of oversight over the Internet’s Web address system, the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), away from the U.S. government ‘should be conducted thoughtfully with a focus on maintaining the security and stability of the Internet, empowering the principle of equal participation among all stakeholder groups and striving towards a completed transition by September 2015,’ the document said,” according to a Hill report.
The agreement is, however, non-binding.
“The Internet ran smoothly for 25 years because the U.S. ensured that [ICANN] operated without government interference,” Crovitz wrote. “Authoritarian regimes can censor the Internet in their own countries and jail their bloggers, but until now had no way to get control over the root zone filenames and addresses of the global Internet. Handing over control could allow them to undermine the open Internet globally, including Americans’ access to U.S. websites.”
The Daily Caller reported earlier this month that current ICANN senior adviser Tarek Kamel took similar action against Egypt by shutting down the country’s Internet during its Arab Spring revolution in 2011, one year before joining ICANN as an adviser to its president.
According to Ambassador Daniel Sepulveda, the State Department’s coordinator for international communications and information policy, Russia, Cuba and India raised concerns about the non-binding conference agreement and expressed support for language that would allow governments to censor and block certain Internet content.
“Michael Daniel, special assistant to President Obama, declared without apparent irony that ‘from the U.S. perspective, NETMundial was a huge success,'” Crovitz wrote. “But it’s no accomplishment when countries that have long sought power over the Internet embrace the U.S. invitation for them to seize it.”
A growing number of lawmakers in Congress are pushing for a legislative vote to decide the future of U.S. Internet governance, which would likely end in the U.S. maintaining its traditional oversight of the Web. After a round of congressional hearings on the issue earlier this month, the Obama administration was forced to cave to bipartisan pressure and announce the decision could be pushed back from September 2015 to 2019, and left in the hands of the next president.
“President Obama should revoke the plan to abandon the open Internet,” Crovitz said. “The ugly spectacle of countries jockeying to control the Internet is a timely reminder of why the U.S. should never give them the chance.”