Edward Snowden and the unravelling of the Internet

The revelations that the National Security Agency has been spying on the Internet’s traffic, and that corporations like Google  would be obliged to lie about the degree of their cooperation, has come as a shock to the naive, and an opportunity for those who would like to detach the governance of the Internet from the United States. That includes many autocratic nations, as well as some constitutional democracies.

When the US established the governing institutions for the Internet in 1998, they had to deal with two different issues: a) how to keep the Internet from falling into the hands of the ITU (International telecommunications Union) which is a treaty-based UN organization, and b) how to arrange the governance so that companies and civil society groups could play an active role.

In a treaty-based organization, Ghana has a vote and Google does not. On the Internet, no one knows you are a state. This is severely annoying to States, and the governments of this world mean to use the opportunity of the Snowden leaks to force new arrangements.

The US is in a moment of weakness for a number of reasons, not merely because of Snowden’s revelations: budgetary problems and weak leadership spring to mind.

The other source of weakness of the US position is that the institutions of governance they created were typically American. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is no more than a California not-for-profit corporation. It derives its authority from a contract from the US department of Commerce. The management of Internet addressing resources, and top-level domain names,  likewise  depend on contracts and memoranda of understanding between the relevant agencies and ICANN.

Thus, the foundational documents for the governance of the Internet, the world’s most important communications system, depend on a chain of supply contracts from a department of the US government. It is astonishing that anything so important could have been placed on a foundation so weak. The actual hold that the US Department of Commerce has over ICANN is the ability to block or allow the insertion of top-level domains into the “root”, the underlying addressing computer to which all other domain name resolvers must ultimately refer.

This arrangement seems somewhat reminiscent of the one, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church before the Reformation. But just as the Christian churches are organized into several major branches of Orthodox, a theoretcally united Roman Catholic, and a forever proliferating set of Protestant sects, so the Internet may be headed into a number of different Nets, none of which will be as universal as the Internet we know now.

What will be the difference? In some ways, the Internet that we know today does not cover the whole world. China lies behind a firewall, which therefore covers about one-third of humanity. Various other places are blocked or obscured behind  serious censorship.

My guess? There will be several different nets corresponding to the major cultural divisions of the world, akin to those set out in Samual Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations in 1993. But the one to which everyone will want to belong, even if they have to slip under the metaphorical barbed wire of Internet censorship, will be the freest one, and that belongs to liberal democratic civilization. Only there will be found the freedom of interchange of ideas and information that will satisfy the needs of people. The others will survive, and will reflect the choices made in the basic political arrangements obtaining in those cultures.

To top