Crash course in internet governance

Last week, the world wide web celebrated its 25th anniversary. Its creator, Tim Berners-Lee, called out for a constitutional steering-wheel of the internet. The demand for a “Magna Carta bill of rights” came in a time where more people are becoming aware of their lack of influence over their own user rights. We cannot escape the internet because our whole lives are there – paying the bills, shopping, information, news and communication are just a few of the essential services for which we increasingly rely on the internet.

In fact, more than 2,9 billion people are connected to the internet (a number that is expected to exceed 3bn in 2014). In certain countries such as the US, UK, France, Germany, and Canada, more than 80% of the population are internet users. People of all ages and backgrounds are active in the virtual world. As more and more flock to it, sharing their personal details and thoughts, the boundaries between a world outside a persons front door and the inside are broken.

What was once separate from everyone is now often plain to see, and without control. Not only is this a problem among people, but it is also a problem between citizens and states. It is even a problem between states. Revelations of American surveillance of not only those states that pose direct threats to security, but also their allies, sparked new debates over codes of conduct of the internet.

In recent years a general consciousness over the extent of the reach by governmental agencies and surveillance via the internet has grown. Action groups such as the World Wide Web Foundation and even political parties (European Pirate Party) are concerned with creating a safer and more open digital future.

“It is not possible to have a democracy if we have to protect our users from the government. The government has done itself a tremendous disservice and we need to have a debate about it” – Larry Page, Co-Founder of Google

Page was present at TED this week where he argued that although surveillance and collection of users data was problematic in the hands of governments, people still have to face a new paradigm of privacy.

But what new paradigm is this? And who has a say in how it is shaped? The internet may be an open, global network for communication for the public, but it is also driven by commercial and political interests. There is no one person, organization or government that “owns” or “runs” the internet. It is coordinated by a multiparty network of stakeholders. However, the organization of internet governance is heavily driven by the American governmental agency Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) which lies under the U.S. Department of Commerce.

It is this organization, combined with the exposure of US surveillance and data storage, that has made other governments wary of the idea of continued coordination from ICANN. The EU released a statement in February announcing that due to “reduced trust” it would pursue a more active role in the future governing and restructuring of internet governance. ICANN has now agreed to loosen up and allow more control from other interested parties, although how long this will take remains to be seen.

But does this mean that the users will be more protected? Or is it only wounded egos of state leaders that will be comforted? The EU has criticized the US for the breach of legally sanctioned surveillance and its distrustful nature towards its allies. At the same time, the EU’s Data Retention Directive requires operators to store user data for 6-24 months and to deliver these to authorities. It has been criticized and demonstrated against, both by civil rights groups and member states’ governments. The directive has been condemned as being “unconstitutional” and “incompatible” with the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.

The future of internet governance, even with the newly sparked debates about the legality of state surveillance and protection of the user, still remains a controversial issue. The climate for global cooperation is, to put it mildly, strained. In addition, the public’s trust has also been broken.

The issue is not isolated to the surveillance and storage of data, but also a question of fundamental human rights. A very poorly kept secret is that authoritarian regimes and governments control in large part the information that can be shared and accessed. One of the most known examples is China’s censorship and restriction of search engine options.

Social media also plays an integral role in both allowing people to connect across borders, and also to circumvent traditional channels to share information and expose real-time events that may otherwise have gone unreported. In the case of the Arab Spring uprisings, social media was an essential tool for mobilization.

Google-founder Eric Schmidt said that the internet is no longer shut off in countries, and that what clever authoritarian regimes do it is infiltrate it and tinker with the information broadcast. In a spectacularly well-timed illustration that pressing the ‘off’ button does not do the job, Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan’s attempt to block Twitter due to unwanted content being shared has actually led to an increase in traffic.

The lack of transparency in the governing of the internet forces the question: who protects the citizens? Is citizen data just a tool used in political games of dominance, or can we really trust that we are safe from misuse and abuse? A citizen initiative announced in 2012 a Declaration of Internet Freedom that advocates the open and free nature of the internet.

Perhaps as an ominous sign of the future, Conner Forrest, a writer for TechRepublic argues that a “bill of rights” will never work and that the most important thing is people being aware of their own rights. This might be true, but if not a bill of rights, then who can people trust with their information and freedom of expression?


Written by Marie Gjerde Rolandsen


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