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THIRD WORLD RESURGENCE

The Internet: Challenges and discontents

While the critical importance of the Internet as both an economic and social utility is no longer in doubt, the fact remains that its promise of democratising communications and society has yet to be realised. Numerous pressing issues with the development, technical architecture and governance of the Internet threaten to stall or completely derail many of the benefits of the Internet, particularly to the developing world. Rishab Bailey highlights these.


IN today's world, the Internet is becoming not only an essential part of the global communications and information infrastructure, but also a major arena for contestation. This contestation concerns what ideas will prevail and who controls these ideas. Newer technologies and models of business are raising questions that are critical in determining how we harness and utilise these innovations: are we ensuring that the benefits of what should be a global commons are reaching every person in the world or merely ensuring that the already powerful are entrenched even further? Who is making money out of the Internet and how? How do you deal with the creation of a global panopticon (as demonstrated by Edward Snowden) or the militarisation of computer networks?

To begin with, it is important to understand what the term 'Internet' means. The term refers to a global system of interconnected networks that uses the standard Internet protocol suite (TCP/IP) to connect millions of users worldwide.1

The basic building blocks of the Internet could, in simple terms, be said to be:

(a) The telecommunications networks/infrastructure that enables the transmission of data packets/information (which range from land and undersea cables to modems and routers, wireless networks, etc.)

(b)  End user terminals (that comprise the network and connect to each user, such as desktop computers, smartphones and tablets)

(c) The ability to assign a unique identifier to each end user terminal, thereby enabling the location of or addressing of information to a specific terminal.2

The growth of the Internet

The Internet as we know it was originally developed under the aegis of the US government for military and academic ends, and till the early 1980s was largely a restricted network. Usage of the Internet however exploded through the 1990s, with the commercialisation of the Internet, aided by the development of the World Wide Web (and the ease of use this enabled). The turn of the century saw the number of applications and services on the Internet multiply in a quite astonishing fashion (ranging from e-commerce to online voting) particularly with the development of Web 2.0 and the increasing ease of accessing Internet services.

The Internet has now become a place where people can turn to for news, entertainment and communication, to express their opinions, to access government and other services (including education, health and so on), and to carry out commerce. As of June 2012, more than 2.4 billion people - over a third of the world's population - had used the Internet.3 Facebook, the world's leading social media website, has over a billion users, while the search giant Google carries out over a billion searches per day. E-commerce sales top $1 trillion4 and Internet companies are some of the biggest and most influential in the world.5 The digital revolution seen over the last three decades has meant that millions of citizens around the world have access to information and services that was unthinkable a generation ago.

It is not too big an exaggeration to say that the Internet has truly revolutionised the way human society interacts and accesses information. However, this factual description must not be understood to imply that all is well and that the revolution has been equally beneficial for all the world's peoples. On the contrary, despite Western rhetoric that suggests that the Internet's ability to quickly and cheaply distribute vast amounts of information and facilitate communication will lead to democratisation in communications and society generally, the reality is that the Internet has largely favoured developed-country interests, in particular the interests of major developed-country companies.

Initially, through the early 1990s, academic discourse about the Internet tended to revel in the euphoria of the numerous potential benefits the Internet could bring - in particular, its potential to democratise (society, institutions, communications, etc.). However, the last two decades have seen the emergence of critical studies that outline how the Internet is effectively only mirroring or in many cases enhancing/amplifying structural inequalities found in society.

The critical importance of the Internet as both an economic and social utility has ensured that any attempts to democratise and align governance processes with the explosion of Internet use globally have been strongly resisted by incumbent interests (at the global and local levels).

What we have seen is that despite the tremendous growth of the Internet and the services provided on it, there remain numerous pressing issues surrounding the development, technical architecture and governance of the Internet which threaten to stall or completely derail many of the benefits the Internet was supposed to offer to humanity.

Indeed, the Internet is fast turning out to be the latest international battleground (much as the sea was the key to global socioeconomic and political control a few hundred years ago) as more and more people wake up to the tremendous power that the Internet (and allied advances in computing) brings as well as the imbalances of power in the relationships that currently define the Internet.

The list of issues presently besetting the online system is a long one. For instance:

*     Two-thirds of the world's population are yet to get any kind of Internet access. Infrastructure and connectivity, particularly in the developing world, continue to remain extremely poor. This is not helped by the rather high cost of international Internet connectivity.6 Infrastructure growth has stagnated in developing countries that often lack adequate resources to allocate to this sector. Present models of governance have also resulted in stagnation of infrastructure growth amongst developed economies as shown by the lack of competition between Internet service providers in countries such as the US (and the consequent low quality of service and high costs).

*     That governments have been carrying out surveillance and espionage is no surprise to anyone, but the scale at which the Internet has enabled the developed economies to utilise their technological prowess for political and economic gain has only recently been exposed by Edward Snowden. The Snowden revelations have conclusively established how the Internet is being used as a tool of global surveillance by the 'Five Eyes' (the US, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) and their allies - and how the rest of the world is largely powerless to prevent these actions (due, among others, to the absence of appropriate legal and institutional mechanisms to deal with such issues and a lack of political will). The militarisation of cyberspace has continued unabated and cyber-security concerns abound.

*     While the Internet was initially seen as a sureshot method of increasing plurality of media sources, the last 15-20 years have instead seen the emergence of huge global monopolies (generally US-based).7 Even within the US, there are now just five media companies that control 90% of all content. With these giants dominating sources of revenue (such as advertising, which is the main revenue source for traditional media outlets), more and more small players are forced out of the market, leading to a loss of plurality of online voices - keep in mind that more and more media is shifting to the Internet today.8 Further, the complicity of these corporations in the global surveillance carried out by the US government is now well established, as are their anti-competitive and unethical practices (such as tax avoidance, price fixing and unchecked monetisation of user data). The influence enjoyed by these companies in the present governance framework is excessive and limits the scope of public interest regulation possible.

*     Not only is a high proportion of content on the Internet in English (thereby ensuring that proficiency in English becomes a precondition to accessing information), but a majority of technical and policy fora conduct proceedings in English, thereby limiting the impact that can be made by non-English-speaking people. Content creation on the Internet is overwhelmingly skewed towards the developed countries (which have the resources and knowhow), leading to very real fears of a rewriting of history including that of developing countries and marginal communities.9

*     There is an ongoing effort to ensure that the entire knowledge of the world is privatised - preferably, of course, in the hands of the Global North. The imposition of restrictive intellectual property norms - for instance, through trade treaties such as the TRIPS Agreement and more recently the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership - ensures that the Global North will continue to own the greatest source of value-added in today's knowledge-based economies. While manufacturing and other processes are outsourced to Global South countries, knowledge continues to be monopolised by the Global North, leading to a net flow of revenues away from the Global South and an increased pauperisation of Southern countries.10

The Internet is creating a smaller and more connected world, but all the possible benefits of this are not percolating down to those who most need them. What should have been a global commons is being privatised and fenced off. What is even more disturbing (including to those outside the world of the Internet) is that governance functions are also being increasingly privatised, including through the adoption and continued use of the 'multistakeholder' model advocated by the US and its allies.

Governing the Internet

Due to its global nature, how to formulate and enforce laws and regulations on the Internet remains a thorny issue. Given the development of the Internet largely as a US government-sponsored exercise and this country's complete control over Internet policy and infrastructure pre-1990s, existing governance structures have largely been arrived at as a result of this historical legacy, throwing up numerous questions of a democratic deficit in this space.

With increased global use of the Internet in the late 1980s and early 1990s grew calls for the governance of the Internet to be divorced from the unilateral control enjoyed by the US government. Early negotiations regarding Internet governance tended to focus on the issue of reducing the role of the US government and anchoring governing structures in non-US-based institutions.11 However, these results were not acceptable to the US government as a multilateral approach would mean a reduction of US influence over the Internet. Therefore a unilateral solution was imposed12 - inter alia through the creation of ICANN,13 an entity bound by law and contract to the US government.14

This privatisation of governance functions ensured that the US could continue to retain control of the critical operational infrastructure of the Internet while maintaining a perception that it was abandoning control. Despite numerous announcements regarding a supposed gradual relinquishment of its central role as a 'steward' of the Internet, little has actually taken place in this regard.15 In fact, even the small steps towards lessening the US dominance of Internet governance institutions are actually more illusory than real, as the preconditions set by the US government for the IANA transition process show. The US government has, inter alia, mandated that governance of the IANA functions (that enable addressing) must be carried out by a private sector body (rather than through a multilateral institution) and that any transition would only take place if the US agrees with the proposed model.

Quite obviously, most other countries in the world are not particularly happy with the central role played by the US with respect to Internet governance. While most countries are coming to increasingly depend on the Internet, they have no (or limited) say in how the Internet is developed and run.16

While traditionally, international law has tended to be the remit of nation states - which represent their citizens and therefore have the authority to make and enforce law - in the context of the Internet, we have seen a privatisation of governance functions under the multistakeholder model of governance currently in vogue. This model, which has been criticised in places as being nothing more than a neoliberal strategy to ensure continued Global North hegemony,17 places all involved stakeholders - the business community, nation states, technical and academic organisations and civil society groups - at the same table in an attempt to forge consensus on issues (in a 'bottom-up' manner). 

The problems with such a system are obvious. Completely unrepresentative organisations are given the same powers as nation states over public policy issues (which also leads to practical problems in that there remains a gap in international law and norm making due to the nature of such discussions). Further, the need for forging consensus before any progress can be made effectively means that no issue where there is a clear conflict of interest (such as where public interest regulation of corporates is concerned) will see any progress.18 The imbalance in resources and consequently participation at Internet governance fora between the private sector (particularly from the Global North) and developing countries completely skews the results of any deliberations. Not coincidentally, the bulk of the organised political support for the multistakeholder model comes from countries whose companies and citizens participate intensively in the work of those bodies.19

The inability of the multistakeholder bodies to deal with some of the most pressing problems in the context of the Internet (to pick an obvious example, only states can guarantee and enforce human rights and therefore any international agreement to outlaw something like mass surveillance or cyber-warfare would have to take the form of an international treaty) and the continued maintenance of the status quo is in itself a public policy decision which has been foisted on the world by developed countries.

There is therefore clearly a need to revisit the governance and operational structures of the Internet to ensure that the Internet can actually be a global commons, a site for global knowledge and information exchange, and a channel to reach essential social and public services and new models of just economic exchange.

 

Rishab Bailey is the Legal Director of the Society for Knowledge Commons, India, and is also associated with the Just Net Coalition.

Endnotes

1     http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internet

2     In the context of the Internet, this is known as the DNS system. The DNS system is a hierarchical and distributed naming system that maps each domain name (such as www.google.com) to a particular set of numbers (known as an Internet Protocol or IP address - which, simply put, is a unique identifier much as a telephone number is on a telephony system) which represents the location of the content/the address of the content. This list of addresses is stored on what are known as master servers located across the globe (though almost exclusively in developed countries). Interestingly, the master server from which all other servers take direction is located in the US and under contractual control of the US government.

3     http://www.internetworldstats.com/stats.htm

4     http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/E-commerce

5     For instance, the PricewaterhouseCoopers annual industry ratings of the Top 100 global companies have Apple at the top, Google at No. 3 (the two are split by ExxonMobil) and Microsoft at fourth (the rankings are based on market capitalisation). Interestingly, while financial companies had more entrants in the top 100 and greater cumulative market capitalisation, the growth and the market capitalisation per company for technology companies are far higher. See 'Global Top Hundred Companies by Market Capitalisation', PricewaterhouseCoopers, 31 March 2014, http://www.pwc.com/gx/en/audit-services/capital-market/publications/top100-market-capitalisation.jhtml. Companies such as Apple, Microsoft and Google also rank in the top 10 of the world's most valuable brands, with Apple and Microsoft even beating the likes of Coca-Cola and McDonald's. See 'The World's Most Valuable Brands', Forbes, November 2013, http://www.forbes.com/powerful-brands/list/

6     Richard Hill, 2013. 'Internet Governance: The Last Gasp of Colonialism, or Imperialism by Other Means?', in RH Weber, R Radu and J-M Chenou (eds.), The Evolution of Global Internet Policy: New Principles and Forms of Governance in the Making?, Schulthess/Springer.

7     See Prabir Purkayastha and Rishab Bailey, 'Evolving a New Internet Governance Paradigm', Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. XLIX, No. 2, 11 January 2014.

8     Rishab Bailey, Claudia Melo and Felicity Ruby, 'Digital colonialism and the Internet as a tool of cultural hegemony', Society for Knowledge Commons, Brazil, available at http://www.knowledgecommons.in/brasil/en/whats-wrong-with-current-internet-governance/digital-colonialism-the-internet-as-a-tool-of-cultural-hegemony/. The top 10 websites in the US had 31% of total page views in 2001, a share which increased to 40% in 2006 and all the way to 75% in 2010. See Robert McChesney, The Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism Is Turning the Internet Against Democracy, 2013.

9     Rishab Bailey, Claudia Melo and Felicity Ruby, 'Digital colonialism and the Internet as a tool of cultural hegemony', Society for Knowledge Commons, Brazil, available at http://www.knowledgecommons.in/brasil/en/whats-wrong-with-current-internet-governance/digital-colonialism-the-internet-as-a-tool-of-cultural-hegemony/.

10   Ibid.

11   Richard Hill, 2013. 'Internet Governance: The Last Gasp of Colonialism, or Imperialism by Other Means?', in RH Weber, R Radu and J-M Chenou (eds.), The Evolution of Global Internet Policy: New Principles and Forms of Governance in the Making?, Schulthess/Springer.

12   Ibid.

13   The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is a non-profit corporation registered in the State of California, USA which is primarily tasked (by the US government, under a contract signed with ICANN) with coordinating the allocation and assignment of the unique identifiers for the Internet. ICANN therefore is the principal organisation that governs/manages/administers the operation of the Internet, and falls under the de facto and de jure control of the US government's Department of Commerce. One of the key functions of ICANN is the distribution of naming resources on the Internet (or in simple terms, controlling the DNS system - though all changes to the main root zone file are carried out by a different entity known as VeriSign Inc.). This is a valuable power as it gives ICANN the ability to control the entire nature of the real estate of the Internet (including, for instance, deleting entire domains). In order to perform this function at a global level, ICANN contracts with or recognises various regional registrars who manage the allocation of numbering resources (IP addresses) on the Internet. 

14   Richard Hill, 2013. 'Internet Governance: The Last Gasp of Colonialism, or Imperialism by Other Means?', in RH Weber, R Radu and J-M Chenou (eds.), The Evolution of Global Internet Policy: New Principles and Forms of Governance in the Making?, Schulthess/Springer.

15   Ibid.

16   Ibid.

17   Prabir Purkayastha and Rishab Bailey, 'US Control of the Internet: Problems Facing the Movement to International Governance', Monthly Review, Vol. 66, No. 3, July-August 2014.

18   Rishab Bailey, Prabir Purkayastha and Felicity Ruby, 'Multilateral and Multistakeholder: A False Dichotomy', The Society for Knowledge Commons, Brazil, http://www.knowledgecommons.in/brasil/en/multilateral-and-multistakeholder-responsibilities/.

19        Richard Hill, 2013. 'Internet Governance: The Last Gasp of Colonialism, or Imperialism by Other Means?', in RH Weber, R Radu and J-M Chenou (eds.), The Evolution of Global Internet Policy: New Principles and Forms of Governance in the Making?, Schulthess/Springer.

*Third World Resurgence No. 287/288, July/August 2014, pp 11-14


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