Global Internet governance: a developing-country perspective
In this review of global Internet governance from a developing-country viewpoint, Parminder Jeet Singh contends that the US and its corporate allies are wary of any challenge to the default Internet governance regime they are shaping and establishing. However, unlike with global trade and intellectual property frameworks which were developed largely unilaterally and foisted by the North upon the developing world, there is still time for the South to develop a proactive strategy to shape the emerging global regime on Internet governance. Such an alternative should, in his view, be broadly based on a new paradigm of the Internet as a global commons and a public utility.
THE subject of Internet governance (IG) first got imported into the consciousness of most developing countries during the negotiations for the outcome texts of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS).1 The main issue at that time was the unilateral US oversight over the root of the Internet, which contains the names and numbers directory for the global Internet addressing system. This was considered unacceptable by almost all other countries. Expectedly, the interest in this subject was mostly of the foreign affairs ministries of developing countries, and came from a traditional geo-political standpoint.
On a different track, for some time since even before WSIS, the information technology (IT) ministries of developing countries had been engaging with the regional Internet registries and with ICANN2 as the Internet was being set up in these countries. The Internet Society, or ISOC, also helped many countries with its expertise in setting up networks. This work was of a brass-tacks nature. This was also the time when the telecom sector was being opened up the world over for private companies, which triggered the mobile telephony revolution. The Internet service providers sought even greater independence from regulation than what telephony was subject to. Most developing countries saw in IT, including the Internet, a new growth opportunity and went all out to support their IT and Internet companies, viewing them fully as a part of global value chains. In the circumstances, the IT ministries or their equivalents largely took an apolitical view of global IG.
It was rather common, until quite recently, to find somewhat discordant views coming from foreign ministries and IT ministries at global IG forums. Only very few countries, like Brazil and China, had begun early to shape a coherent foreign policy stance on global IG. A turf war was witnessed in many developing countries between IT and foreign ministries. This problem has only now started to be addressed, with more and more countries beginning to understand the nature of power and controls over the global Internet.
The US and other developed countries had initially envisioned WSIS as an instrument to take forward their global 'digital opportunities' vision which had been articulated at the turn of the century in G8 meetings.3 These countries had resisted the claims of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) to be the main entity for hosting WSIS, still mindful of the political tendencies of UNESCO in the informational arena, which had earlier precipitated the crisis around the New World Information and Communication Order. They preferred the International Telecommunication Union (ITU)'s technocratic approach. All the current distancing from ITU's role in information society governance notwithstanding (see below), they were the ones who had pushed for ITU to take the lead in holding WSIS.
Midway through WSIS, when the US and its allies found that information society was becoming a highly geo-politicised issue, their enthusiasm for WSIS-type global forums subsided drastically. At the end of WSIS, developed countries did not agree to set up a new UN functional commission to look into the WSIS follow-up, as had been done previously for many similar global summits. And the rebound continues, as these countries have recently been blocking even a 10-yearly WSIS review summit which is very much the practice in most areas and is also mandated in WSIS outcome documents.
An increasing understanding in developing countries of Internet governance as a highly political subject was matched by a growing keenness among the developed countries to withdraw this issue from the UN's scope and mandate. However, such understanding among developing countries is still very incipient, and there exists no coherent developing-world vision of global IG. As mentioned, the line departments, IT and telecom ministries are yet to frame the global political implications of their domains in an appropriately holistic manner.
Apart from the US' unilateral oversight of the Internet's root, the main issue from developing countries' side at WSIS concerned the market-based inter-connectivity regime, where naked market power determined pricing. Since Internet content and services mostly resided in developed countries, chiefly the US, the Internet service providers in developing countries were forced to pay for both up- and down-connectivity to the backbone networks based in developed countries. Whereas developed countries subsidised developing countries' connectivity infrastructure in the ITU-run global telephony system, global Internet connectivity followed the exact opposite model: developing countries subsidise the networks in developed countries.
This paradigmatic shift from the erstwhile regulated global communication system to a completely unregulated communications and informational global market, which best serves the interests of the US-based information and communications companies, underlies much of global IG contestations today. Outwardly, however, these contestations are framed as a struggle for an unfragmented global Internet and the need to protect freedom of expression everywhere, whereby governments and regulations should be kept away from the Internet.
The final days of negotiations for outcome documents of the second phase of WSIS were rather tense. Regarding the unilateral oversight of the US over the Internet's root, almost all countries stood as one against the US. As for general information society governance, the divisions were more along the traditional North-South lines. The compromise outcome assured national sovereignty over country top-level domains like .cn and .br.4 Discussions for establishing mechanisms for global Internet policies were to remain ongoing over what was identified as the 'enhanced cooperation' process. Meanwhile, it was agreed to set up a multistakeholder policy dialogue forum for Internet policy issues, the Internet Governance Forum (IGF). The IGF was, inter alia, mandated to give recommendations where needed. The US and its allies strongly resisted even the setting up of an IGF, and it is the developing countries that pushed for such a forum and got it.
As happens with many global policy events, the political temperatures came down quickly as soon as WSIS came to an end. Even in the European Union, there was very little appreciation of the deep social and economic implications of global IG. Directions from the highest political quarters focused on staying closely on the US side of global geo-economic divisions meant that, occasional weak protests apart, the EU has been unwilling to upset the apple cart.
Brazil and China were the two developing countries most active in the immediate post-WSIS period. China brought a proposal for an international code of conduct in cyberspace to the early IGFs, and sought wider engagement. Brazil even informally broached the possibility of a 'framework convention on the Internet'. It also offered concrete alternatives for a truly global management of the Internet's root.
Meanwhile, as the very significant geo-political dimensions of the issue became apparent, a so-called 'global Internet governance community' began to take shape. It was very aggressively dominated by non-state actors, backed strongly by the US and some of its closest allies. ICANN, with its huge collection of monopoly fees - that can be called taxes - from global Internet users through domain name fees, was an important funder and provider of other resources for this group.
This group was soon able to largely capture the IGF. This 'community' showed no interest in moving forward on addressing rapidly accumulating serious public policy issues regarding the Internet at a global level. It mostly played an obstructionist role, propping up the status quo of continued US/ICANN management of the technological infrastructure and an unregulated market-based evolution of global Internet services. The promise of the IGF as a genuinely participatory institution for global governance of the Internet, the reason that developing countries had supported it at WSIS, was stemmed early by powerful status quo-ist forces.
With little possibility of any positive progress, China seems to have reduced its involvement on the global stage since around 2008, focusing on domestic policies to manage its Internet. At the international level, its interest shifted to developing regional alliances, chiefly the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. These countries later came up with an 'international code of conduct for information security' and presented it to the UN for voluntary adoption by other countries. Around this time, Brazil too began to tone down its aggressive posture where it had been putting forward specific alternatives to the status quo global IG regime. It however kept up a high degree of engagement with post-WSIS forums of the IGF and the UN Commission on Science and Technology for Development (CSTD),5 and for quite some time was the lone developing country with a coherent strategy of engagement on global IG.
After a lull of about 3-4 years, the threads from WSIS began to be picked up by some floor-level coordination among developing countries at the CSTD's annual consideration of progress on WSIS outcomes. Developing countries got together to assert that the WSIS mandate of enhanced cooperation, which was to have been operationalised in 2006, had shown no progress. They managed to get the UN Secretary-General to hold open consultations on 'enhanced cooperation'.
It was at these consultations, in December 2010, that the IBSA countries (India, Brazil and South Africa) got together for the first time to issue a joint statement.6 This statement sought a formal intergovernmental platform under the UN that would take up Internet-related public policy issues. The statement said that this platform should complement 'the Internet Governance Forum, a multi-stakeholder forum for discussing, sharing experiences and networking on Internet governance'. Importantly, this statement also raised some key social and economic issues like net neutrality and access to knowledge, in addition to the traditional ones like freedom of expression, privacy and security.
From this point onwards, IBSA cooperation on the subject picked up steam. On the initiative of the Brazilian government and some civil society actors from Brazil and India, a meeting was held among IBSA governments and IBSA civil society representatives on 'Global Internet Governance' in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 2011. At the end of this meeting, the government representatives from the three IBSA countries drafted a set of 'Rio Recommendations'. These recommendations specifically sought a new UN body for global Internet governance. The 2011 IBSA summit later took note of the Rio Recommendations and exhorted the three countries to keep working closely together on this key issue.
It had long been felt that although the developing countries had been asking for a new UN forum to take up Internet policy issues, there was no concrete proposal on the table. Building on the momentum from the Rio meeting and positive exhortations from the IBSA summit, India took the initiative to plug this gap. In late 2011, India made a proposal to the UN General Assembly to set up a Committee for Internet-Related Policies (CIRP) attached to the General Assembly.7 The proposal presented a detailed plan on the mandate and membership of the proposed Committee. It was also to have stakeholder advisory committees, patterned on similar committees for the OECD's Internet policy body.8
WCIT and Snowden
Within six months of each other, two global events made a most decisive impact on the perception in developing countries about global Internet governance.
First was ITU's World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) in Dubai in December 2012, which was to develop a new set of International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs) to replace the existing set negotiated 25 years earlier. ITU has been the key target of liberal and neoliberal groups, supported by the US and its allies, for being the organisation that 'plans to take over the Internet'. The US played on this sentiment, quite prominent in the global North but also among developing-country middle classes, and promoted WCIT as a battle for or against 'controlling the Internet'.
The core contention at WCIT was whether or not the Internet should be recognised as a part of telecommunications and thus come under the ITRs and ITU's realm to regulate. Any such recognition, and its consequences, would clearly have come in the way of the fully unregulated market approach to the global Internet, of which we spoke earlier. (It must be noted that in almost all countries, including the US, telecom regulators do already regulate the Internet as well.) In the end, the ITR draft on the table had no mention of the Internet. The Internet was taken to an attached resolution which (1) clearly did not have the authority of the ITRs, and (2) just followed a well-established tradition at ITU in relation to its earlier resolutions dealing with Internet-related issues.
There was very little excuse for the US not to sign the ITRs. In fact, its European allies were mostly ready to sign on. It appears that the US, along with its multinational corporations, led by Google, and its civil society, became a victim of their own excessive propaganda. On the very flimsy ground that the ITRs gave member countries a right not to be thrown off the global Internet, they walked out of WCIT. The Europeans reluctantly followed, more to keep to the traditional geo-political alignments than anything else. The chimera of some kind of global consensus on the Internet was exposed.9
Most developing countries saw it as a betrayal by the US and its allies with regard to their long-professed rhetoric of a global Internet for development and a better world. Their self-interest was laid bare. It became evident that the US did not want democratic global governance of the Internet, not because it could thwart the innovative potential of the Internet but because the US and its companies wanted a free run on and control over the Internet as a means for global economic, social, political and cultural control and exploitation. Such control would be threatened if any global governance body like ITU included Internet-related issues in its mandate.
As the world was still coming to terms with the WCIT shock, Edward Snowden thoroughly exposed the manner in which the US employed the Internet for gaining intrusive social and personal access and controls across the world. In the global public's mind, the Internet had lost its innocence forever. The Internet is such a potent social force, largely seen as having a very positive potential, that winning the hearts and minds of the public is of key importance in framing effective political positions in this area. Understanding this fact, strategies of US-based actors for resisting any move towards democratic global IG have most effectively been targeted at the 'global public sphere'. And they were winning this game, till Snowden came along and changed the situation so dramatically.
How the Internet is governed today
After intellectual property rights, and linked to it, control over the Internet is the biggest factor in establishing and sustaining global economic hegemony in the emerging world order.10 The Internet also enables a considerable level of political, social and cultural domination, and therefore its control and exploitation is seen as key by the US and its corporate allies. At this stage, their strategy is to fully keep at bay any possible global governance system that can interfere with the default global IG regime that they are shaping and establishing. It consists of the following four interrelated elements:
(1) Pursuing an unregulated market approach at the global level so that US corporations can shape and control the global digital architecture, establish huge monopolies and extract rents globally.
(2) In cases where the US finds it absolutely necessary to do so, getting US law to apply to the global Internet through the simple expedient that almost all the major Internet corporations are US-based and subject to US jurisdiction. Consequently, the main techno-legal paradigms of the emerging digital age are today set by 'negotiations' between the Internet's monopoly companies and US regulators like the Federal Communications Commission and Federal Trade Commission, and often directly with the executive or with the courts.
(3) Creating pro-developed-country global IG frameworks at plurilateral forums like the OECD and G8 and pushing them globally on the basis of sheer economic muscle.11 Further, using plurilateral forums like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership to establish the US' own vision as the default global regime.
(4) Relying on corporate-dominated/driven multistakeholder forums to shore up the rest, especially in the area of technical and logical infrastructure and standards, and of keeping a favourable global IG discourse going. The fact that even after the WCIT fiasco and Snowden revelations such a discourse continues to have a considerable number of followers can be considered a stupendous achievement.
The games status quo-ists play
As the US shapes the default regime for the global Internet, it may soon be too late to make any substantial changes to it, so deeply intertwined our economic and social structures will be with the Internet. The US-based actors understand this well, and have put in place very well-planned and well-resourced strategies to buy time. Apart from supporting its companies, working in selected plurilateral forums and propping up US corporates dominating multistakeholder governance structures, a good part of this strategy is focused directly on global public opinion.
Nice-sounding terms like 'Internet freedom' and 'multistakeholderism' have, more or less successfully till now, been backgrounded with the fear of 'a UN takeover of the Internet' and splintering of the globally seamless Internet into national Internets. Huge amounts of funds have been ploughed into this space, in the name of building capacities in the South. Seldom before has such a sudden influx of huge funds by donors been witnessed in any field. And this is being done not only by the developed countries and their donor agencies but also by corporations like Google. Their combined impact is indeed daunting.
The strategy is extremely sophisticated, which points to the dominant actors' keen understanding of the importance of this issue (and the corresponding non-understanding among most developing countries, both governments and civil society). Country-level strategies have been employed to push back even the slightest movement towards seeking democratisation of global IG. The best examples of this are with regard to the two countries - India and Brazil - which have been recognised as most 'dangerous' in being possibly able to take a legitimate leadership role globally towards shaping alternative visions for the global Internet.
When India, which had been rather subdued after WSIS, suddenly put forward the CIRP proposal in the UN in 2011, alarm bells rang for the status quo-ists. Almost immediately afterward, a strong IG initiative was launched in India by the representative of a US telecom company, employing the cover of an Indian industry association. This initiative gathered a ragtag coalition of corporate and civil society actors (also co-opting a few unsuspecting academics) to inter alia propose holding an India IGF under the management of the concerned industry association.12 Such an assemblage was to develop 'community views' to challenge what were seen as undemocratic global stances of the Indian government (read: the CIRP proposal).
For quite some time, this strategy was extraordinarily successful and was able to make huge inroads into India's Internet policy establishment. It managed to make it appear that India was getting doubtful about its own CIRP proposal. It also had a strong role to play in India not signing the WCIT ITRs in Dubai and reserving its opinion on the matter, which came as a big surprise to many. However, the Snowden revelations - which showed that the particular US company whose Indian representative led the Indian IG initiative had been helping the US government in foreign espionage13 - dealt a considerable setback to the initiative, which since then has seemed to be losing steam.
Even more successful was the strategy of the status quo-ists with regard to containing Brazil's outrage over the Snowden revelations on the bugging of the Brazilian President's telephone and snooping on commercially valuable information belonging to the state oil company, among many other things. Brazilians were so livid that President Dilma Rousseff cancelled a state visit to the US and went to the UN to seek a new initiative for democratising global Internet governance. Panic struck the relevant quarters in the US. It is to their credit, however, that they came up with an outstanding counter-strategy.
ICANN's CEO went to meet Rousseff and made all the right noises about how she had given voice to the whole world's concerns and about how things must now move on. He exhorted the President to hold a global meeting on Internet governance to chart the roadmap ahead. As could be expected, the President agreed and such a meeting was announced. But from that announcement onwards, it was one sordid tale of a creeping capture of the meeting - now called NETmundial - by the US status quo-ists, taking advantage of the diplomatic grace and politeness of the Brazilian hosts.
In the end, instead of addressing any of the concerns arising from the Snowden revelations, the NETmundial meeting actually came up with a set of principles and roadmap which provided new legitimacy to the corporate-dominated multistakeholder form of global governance. At the meeting, for instance, representatives of top multinational corporations (MNCs) like Cisco and Disney could be seen literally reading out texts to the drafting groups.
In order to sweeten his initial invitation, ICANN's CEO seems to have hinted to President Rousseff that the US/ICANN was ready to make some bold changes. It was then learnt that these changes involved the readiness of the US to give up its oversight over ICANN. However, once the NETmundial meeting got underway, any substantive discussion/consultation on this issue was withdrawn from the NETmundial process, or any such relatively representative global meeting. It has been taken to the narrow technical community around ICANN, whose views on this issue are rather well known. It is now evidentthat the US will not transfer its oversight role to a globally representative body but will simply abolish it. This will leave a very important global governance agency, ICANN, fully unsupervised, which is not at all what the non-US countries have been asking for. The US meanwhile knows that it still has enough legal, legislative and even executive levers of control over ICANN, since the latter is incorporated in its jurisdiction.
Even after Snowden had so thoroughly rattled public perceptions about the Internet, and there has been an intense desire to 'do something' about it, which is why the world initially rallied behind Brazil in its initiative, the status quo-ists were able to completely hijack the NETmundial event. It should prima facie be considered strange that a meeting called to address a global horror unveiled by Snowden regarding the practices of the US government and its corporations ended such that the meeting and its outcomes were most celebrated by these very actors. Through the practices at NETmundial and its outcome document, they were able to lay out a roadmap which points in exactly the opposite direction to where the developing countries need to go. It is little surprise then that the next stop is the World Economic Forum, where a new 'NETmundial Initiative' is now being cooked up (see box). Such processes and meetings are sought to supplant traditional, UN-based global governance fora.
Similar containment strategies are being employed in many other countries, including in Africa, often leveraging the presence of US-based MNCs or donor aid. The problem here is rather straightforward. The US-based status quo-ists understand how outstandingly important IG is to global economic, social, political and cultural domination. Developing countries mostly do not. They do keep getting a whiff or two of the enormity of the matter, mostly from the daily flow of news on Internet issues. However, they do not have a clear substantive understanding of the issues, much less an agenda that they could pursue in this important area of global governance.
A roadmap for developing countries
The default global trade and intellectual property frameworks were developed unilaterally by the North and then got inscribed into the respective global governance institutions, the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO). Developing countries have always had to play catch-up. The paradigm for global governance of the Internet, however, is only now being formed. There is still time for the developing countries to work on a proactive strategy to shape it, rather than just accept what is dished out by developed countries. Below is a very brief layout of the areas in which developing countries should begin working together.
The first requirement is to develop deep substantive and strategic competence with regard to the subject of the global Internet and IG. The larger and more active developing countries must take the lead in this respect. The IBSA summit in 2011 had called for establishing an 'IG and development' observatory. The BRICS grouping (which comprises Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) has think-tank initiatives in many areas and should also take up similar work in the IG space. The South Centre in Geneva has already begun some work in this area, and its capacities should be strengthened.
One significant complication is that IG encompasses too large a swathe of issues. Many of them do not admit of similar treatment. Some of them, for instance, can attract much more commonality of perspectives and interests than others. It is important therefore to distinguish at least two streams of issues and take them up separately, although they often do intersect. These are the fields of (1) freedom of expression, privacy and security, on one side, and (2) various economic, social and cultural issues, on the other. Developed countries have managed to keep the global IG ball firmly in the first court. In contrast, economic, social and cultural issues have not even been identified clearly enough till now. This is a job for developing countries to do. BRICS could take the lead and set up a think-tank initiative on 'economic, social and cultural issues related to the Internet'.
Developing countries should have a well-developed collective strategy for global fora, soundly supported by such knowledge resources as discussed above. After months of stalemate, the UN General Assembly has recently announced that a high-level meeting to review the implementation of the WSIS outcomes will be held in December 2015, with a preparatory process commencing from June 2015. This will be the single most crucial stage on which the developing countries must come together and present clear and strong proposals. Internal preparations for it must start now. The ITU Plenipotentiary Conference in October-November 2014 will be a good place to begin strategising together, although ITU looks at a relatively narrow segment of global IG issues.
It is however extremely unlikely that the US and its allies will yield any ground at global governance fora. Developing countries should simultaneously focus on South-South cooperation. The single most practical and effective approach today could be to announce some kind of an Internet Cooperation Platform or Forum at the BRICS, IBSA or G77 level, possibly all of them. It is only when such a forum is launched, and practical work on cooperation on Internet policy issues begins, that the US and its allies could be moved to offer global responses and solutions. The latter know that a global free trade regime for their Internet MNCs is of basic importance to their global ambitions. If developing countries, especially the larger ones, begin working together on Internet issues, it could curtail the unrestricted global reach and playing field available today to these companies. Such a move by larger developing countries will be the single most important game-changer in the area of global Internet governance today. Just setting up a BRICS and/or IBSA Internet Cooperation Platform will, at a single stroke, transform the global IG landscape and what follows thereafter.
It is worth noting that the tide is turning against an unregulated Internet even outside the developing countries. A recent French Senate report recognises an urgent need to take far-reaching steps to stem the US domination on the Internet.14 Even within the US, civil society advocates have begun to realise that an unregulated Internet does not serve the public interest and that appropriate regulation of the Internet is needed.15
The stage is therefore set for developing a new paradigm for the governance of the Internet, based on (1) its commons nature, and (2) the need for at least some of its core functionalities to be made available as public utilities, even if supplied by regulated private entities. Appropriate models of policies and regulation are required that can ensure people civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights vis-a-vis the Internet. It is for developing countries to present such a new paradigm. They should stop playing catch-up and aim high this time around. There may still be time, although perhaps not too much, to reclaim the Internet for its egalitarian values.
Parminder Jeet Singh is Executive Director of IT for Change (www.ITforChange.net), which works in the area of intersection of digital technologies and social change. In relation to global Internet governance, IT for Change has been most prominent in framing and advocating positions that favour developing countries and marginalised sections.
1. WSIS was held in two phases, with two summits, one in Geneva in 2003 and the other in Tunis in 2005.
2. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, which is responsible for the addressing system of the Internet.
3. See the Okinawa Charter on Global Information Society (2000) at http://www.mofa.go.jp/policy/economy/summit/2000/documents/charter.html.
4. This assertion is largely symbolic and normative, as shown, for instance, by a recent US court case where some groups have sought seizure of country top-level domain names of Iran and Syria, and the court seems to be responding favourably.
5 The CSTD, a subsidiary body of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), was mandated to conduct the WSIS follow-up.
10 Control over capital and finance no doubt remains key, but these are the most significant new elements of the hegemonic global order that is being sought.
11 See, for instance, http://usoecd.usmission.gov/june2011_internet2.html
12 The Indian government however refused to allow the industry association to use the India IGF brand, and they held their meetings under different names.
A former Permanent Representative of India to the UN in New York,
Hardeep Puri, has written about the extent of penetration by the representative
of this company into India's Internet policy establishment. http://www.samachar.com
*Third World Resurgence No. 287/288, July/August 2014, pp 15-21