What’s wrong with current Internet governance

From its beginnings as a state funded project of the United States Government to its present status as the most ubiquitous of all global networks, the Internet has revolutionized the way human society communicates and accesses information.


We believe that the Internet should be viewed as a social medium and global commons, a site for global knowledge and information exchange, a channel to reach essential social and public services and new models of just economic exchange.


Knowledge Commons believes that there are four interlinked problems with current Internet governance

  1. New rules are needed to prevent drag net surveillance, economic espionage and sabotage
  2. New rules are needed to prevent e-commerce monopolies
  3. Internet law and infrastructures are currently controlled by a handful of actors
  4. The benefits of the internet are not sharing diverse knowledge and culture


While spy scandals have understandably dominated the headlines, Edward Snowden has also revealed that current governance, legal and oversight structures of the Internet have failed to keep up with technology. New agreements about what is fair and legal are needed.


The decision-making structures and technological architecture that worked when the Internet was born and grew in its infancy, no longer work in today’s world. Given its global significance, the fact that the Internet is legally tied to one country no longer makes sense.


In fact, what Edward Snowden has revealed is that leaving current practices unchanged poses risks to the privacy of citizens, the capacity of governments to engage with one another in trust, and the ability of the global economic system to function fairly and effectively.


The law governing the Internet and the technical and policy frameworks are currently unclear. Business as usual – including mass warrantless surveillance of citizens and governments, economic espionage and the domination of a handful of governments and corporations – is not healthy for democracy or indeed for the continuance of a ‘global’ Internet.


The multistakeholder model that has evolved has a role to play in the overall ecosystem of Internet governance, however, placing governments on the same footing as corporations has not produced strong enough safeguards for citizens. Voices from the Global South in particular do not have adequate resources to keep up with the decision-making meetings held all around the world, thereby skewing the representation at such fora in favour of those with adequately deep pockets, which has left the multistakeholder model imbalanced with governments and corporations resourced to attend with legal counsel and PR staff in tow.


Accordingly, there is an urgent need for governments, NGOs and the private sector to forge a new consensus on:


1. Preventing drag net surveillance, economic espionage and sabotage

There is a difference between what technically possible and what is legal or acceptable. This difference is recognized in International Humanitarian Law – the laws of war – where indiscriminate weapons and torture are outlawed. New treaty agreements – or additional protocols to existing treaties – are needed to apply similar limits to online activities, to elaborate rights and prohibit certain acts.


Existing treaties do cover these issues in general terms – the UN Charter, human rights and trade treaties oblige governments to secure data, protect citizen’s human rights to privacy and freedom of expression, and to not spy on each other’s citizens. These treaties all recognize that there are legitimate surveillance activities and actors, and provide a licence for them to act with proper oversight and warrants based on reasonable suspicion of wrong-doing. However, we now know that governments are bypassing oversight and abusing the capacity to surveil their own citizens – and those of foreign countries – just because they technically can.


The technology can be configured differently. Technical experts will be needed to ensure that any new principles agreed upon actually prohibit and police indiscriminate data collection, back-doors into software or hardware, the hacking of submarine cables, the sabotage of networks etc. And new standard operating procedures with regular reporting on arrangements between governments and corporations that protect private data will need to be implement.


2. Applying fair rules to prevent e-commerce monopolies

Monopolies that concentrate power in the hands of a few are recognized as dangerous in national law and international trade agreements. Monopolies are typically prevented through competition laws that prevent one person or company from controlling too great a share of a given market.


New markets have been created through the internet, with new types of monopolies forming that, extract revenue from advertising and selling user data, activities that are not yet covered by existing rules. For example, some companies are producing, refining, adding value, distributing and reselling data, something that would not be possible in other sectors such as mining or under media ownership rules. Other companies own infrastructure, wholesale and retail services. If principles of net neutrality are not preserved, some companies will be able to control what we see or slowing down sites that don’t pay.


A particular relationship has formed between governments and Internet companies because they are exchanging data collected online voluntarily, unknowingly or through coercion. Preventing regulatory capture – or the relaxation of industry regulations by governments in exchange for favours – requires new rules in the digital age when we have seen some governments using equipment and personnel funded by tax-payers to conduct economic espionage that advantages private interests corporations in contract negotiations.


Transparency about these exchanges of data about citizens is vital; the information of users that companies can collect and store, and how companies utilize such information should be restricted, and they should be allowed to disclose the nature of their agreements with and the quantities of information they are handing over to governments.


3. Ensuring that internet law and infrastructure are not controlled by a handful of actors

The Internet emerged from the USA and has become the global infrastructure hub for copper, fibre optic cable and satellite communications. More than 80% of global voice and Internet traffic passes through US territory or through US company servers, meaning it is subject to US law. A California-based organisation, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) controls the global domain name system and operates under an MOU with the US Dept of Commerce, which can veto ICANN decisions.


After Edward Snowden’s revelations, ICANN itself has called for redressing this imbalance through ‘accelerating the globalisation’ of ICANN functions. While this modest proposal would be a positive step, it is vague and does not address the fundamental need to distribute Internet infrastructure, responsibility and governance of the Internet more evenly.


To prevent surveillance abuses and monopolies and to resolve the crisis in confidence in current Internet governance, future growth of the Internet needs to decentralize infrastructure and decision-making through representative and transparent structures that include all stakeholders and assign clear responsibilities to governments, the private sector and civil society.


4. Distributing the benefits of the Internet to share diverse knowledge and culture

The Internet is the greatest information sharing tool and library in history. The freedom to connect has led to information sharing, scientific and technical innovation and the formation of global civil society networks that are extraordinarily valuable.


Another danger arises from economic and content monopolies online: their ability to influence the way in which culture activities and projects evolve. With the dominance of some cultures and languages currently online, the potential exists for culture and news from one part of the globe to dominate all else. This is in part a reflection of the fact that the 2 billion people online are predominantly in the global north. If the internet is to be used to truly advance and share culture, it must address the potential for imbalance that sees Justin Bieber widely distributed because he is from the global north and technically able, whereas similarly talented performers who don’t perform in English and come from resource poor areas are denied wide exposure.


In other sectors, these dangers are recognized and local industries and culture are protected through industry specific or geographic tariff protections to stop dumping and the local distortions it causes. In the case of the internet, urgently bridging the digital divide and addressing the negative impacts of economic monopolies and infrastructure rooted in a handful of countries will protect meaningful local journalism and share a diversity of culture.