Although somewhat under the radar, there has been an ongoing battle within the “international community” to define the future of the Internet; in particular, the acceptable level of state involvement in the Internet according to international law.
On the one side of the debate has been most of the Western world including the U.S., Canada, Australia, and the EU, along with a few allies in various countries. These states have been pressing the notion that the Internet should continue to be regulated by non-government organizations. For example, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), and NGO, handles the mundane matter of assigning domain names.
On the other side of the debate has been much of the rest of the world. This group, which is led by countries by China, Russia, and Iran, has been seeking to codify into international law the principle that national governments should have greater control over the Internet. Of course, China, Russia, and Iran already heavily monitor their populations’ activities on the World Wide Web. Their goals, however, are to have international law condone their actions to restrict internet freedom, and accord them greater powers to do so.
The most overt battle over the future of the Internet took place last December. The occasion was the renegotiation of the UN International Telecommunication Regulations Treaty, which governs international telephone traffic. Representatives from 193-nations traveled to Dubai, UAE last December to participate in updating the treaty.
However, it soon became clear that a group of countries, led by Russia and China, had decided to use this mundane conference to advance their positions on Internet freedom. As the New York Times wrote at the time, “A group of countries led by Russia and China are trying to use the deliberations… to undermine the open spirit of the Internet.”
A controversial proposal submitted to the conference by Russia sought to empower individual nations to assign domain names in their country instead of ICANN, and give them broader powers on “matters of Internet governance,” according to the NYT. Overall the NYT summed up the proposal by observing: “Analysts say that [the] language appears to legitimize and validate controls over content and access that many nations already use by including them in an international treaty.”
The U.S., Canada, U.K. and Australia, among other nations, tirelessly fought to keep the Internet outside the purview of the treaty. This was emblematic of their usual position of fighting on behalf of limiting government’s role in regulating the Internet in matters involving international law. When the Western world failed to keep the Internet outside the bounds of the treaty, the U.S., Canada, Australia and the UK joined a number of other nations in walking out on the conference and refusing to sign the document, which was agreed to immediately by 89 countries.
Their fight did not stop there. The U.S. House of Representative passed by a unanimous vote—yes, you read that right, the House of Representatives agreed unanimously on something— a resolution condemning the updates to the Treaty. One U.S. official testified that the conference and the updates had, “ended the era of an international consensus to keep inter-governmental hands off of the Internet in dramatic fashion.” The same official pledged that the U.S. would continue to fight to prevent the UN from gaining greater control over the Internet, and try to rollback what had already been done at a future conference.
That was in February. Since then, the world learned of the existence of Edward Snowden. And from Mr. Snowden, the world learned that the U.S. intelligence community uses the internet to extensively monitor its own citizens and many international ones as well. The U.K. intelligence agencies appear to be at least as audacious in their own use of the Internet for espionage purposes.
Whatever one thinks of Mr. Snowden’s actions or motives, one of his most lasting legacies in ousting these programs is likely to be severely setting back the cause of Internet freedom in the international community. Although the U.S. and the U.K. are likely to still advocate for the same causes— probably by trying to draw stark distinctions between their actions versus those of countries like Russia, Iran, and China—these pleas will almost certainly be dismissed outright by other countries, who will note—quite rightly—that they reek of hypocrisy. As a result, states and inter-governmental organizations are likely to gain even more control over what has long been thought of as a stateless entity.
Of course, the counterargument to this is that this will constitute little actual change. After all, some will point out, despite their advocacy in international forums, the truth is that the U.S. government was hardly allowing the private sector regulate the Internet unimpeded. And actions, speak larger than words, so to say.
There is undoubtedly a certain amount of truth to this. However, it also misses a large point—namely, that the Internet is still in its infancy and thus most susceptible to norms that later become self-enforcing. Whatever U.S. intelligence agencies are doing covertly today, by advocating for Internet freedom in international forums, the U.S. is trying to universalize a normative principle—and therefore expectation—that the regulation of the Internet should be outside the purview of national governments. If established, over time reality would almost certainly begin to more closely approach the ideal.
This is a norm that Edward Snowden would strongly support, and indeed claims to have given up so much personally to defend. The ultimate irony is that he has almost certainly, if inadvertently, delivered a major setback to Internet freedom, at least from an international perspective.