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The geopolitics of the Internet broke open during the first half of December at an international conference in Dubai convened by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a UN affiliate agency with 193 national members. At these meetings, states (thronged by corporate advisors) forge agreements to enable international communications via cables and satellites. These gatherings, however boring and bureaucratic, are crucial because of the enormous importance of networks in the operation of the transnational political economy.
The December 2012 World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) in Dubai produced a major controversy: should ITU members vest the agency with oversight responsibilities for the Internet, responsibilities comparable to those it has exercised for decades for other forms of international communication?
The United States said no, and the US position won out: the new ITU treaty document did not grant the agency a formal role in what has come to be called “global Internet governance”. However, a majority of countries voted to attach a resolution “invit[ing] member states to elaborate on their respective position on international Internet-related technical, development and public policy issues within the mandate of the ITU at various ITU fora.” Objecting to “even symbolic global oversight”, as a New York Times writer put it (1), the US refused to sign the treaty and walked away. So did France, Germany, Japan, India, Kenya, Colombia, Canada, Britain and other nations. However, more than two-thirds of the attending countries — 89 all told — endorsed the document. (And some of the nations that did not sign may accept the treaty later.)
To understand what is at stake we need to make our way through the rhetorical smog. For months prior to the WCIT, the Euro-American press trumpeted warnings that this was to be an epochal clash between upholders of an open Internet and would-be government usurpers, led by authoritarian states like Russia, Iran and China. The terms of reference were set so rigidly that one European telecom company executive called it a campaign of “propaganda warfare” (2).
Freedom of expression is no trifling issue. No matter where we live, there is reason for worry that the Internet’s relative openness is being usurped, corroded or canalised. This does not necessarily imply armies of state censors or “great firewalls”. The US National Security Agency, for example, sifts wholesale through electronic transmissions transiting satellite and cable networks, through its extensive “listening posts” and its gigantic new data centre at Bluffdale Utah (3); and the US government has gone after a true proponent of freedom of expression — WikiLeaks — in deadly earnest. US Internet companies such as Facebook and Google have transformed the Web into a “surveillance engine” to vacuum up commercially profitable data about users’ behaviour.
Even during the 1970s, the rhetoric of “free flow of information” had long functioned as a central tenet of US foreign policy. During the era of decolonisation and cold war the doctrine purported to be a shining beacon, lighting the world’s way to emancipation from imperialism and state repression. Today it continues to paint deep-seated economic and strategic interests in an appealing language of universal human rights. “Internet freedom”, “freedom to connect”, “net freedom” — terms circulated by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Google executives together in the run-up to the WCIT — are today’s version of the longstanding “free flow” precept. But just as before, “Internet freedom” is a red herring. Calculatingly manipulative, it tells us to entrust a fundamental human right to a pair of powerfully self-interested social actors: corporations and states.
The deliberations at the WCIT were multifaceted, and encompassed crosscutting issues. One was the terms of trade between Internet services like Google and the companies that transport their voluminous data streams — network operators and ISPs like Verizon, Deutsche Telekom or Free. This business fight harbours implications for a more general and important policy issue: who should pay for the continual modernisations of network infrastructure on which recurrent augmentations and enhancements of Internet service depend. Xavier Niel’s bold attack on Google’s French revenues, when he implemented an ad-blocker as his Free network’s default setting, placed this issue in bold relief before the public. But the terms of trade in the global Internet industry are also important because any general edict that content providers must pay network operators — Niel’s goal, similar to that of other telecom companies — would carry grave consequences for the Net Neutrality policies which have been so vital for Internet users.
Until now, this power has been wielded disproportionately by the US (4). During the 1990s, when the web-centric Internet exploded onto the world stage, the US made intense efforts to institutionalise its management role. Domain names led by dotcom, and numerical web addresses and network identifiers, need to be unique for the system to operate; and the ability to assign them in turn establishes a point from which institutional power may be projected over the extraterritorial Internet. Management of these critical Internet resources is exercised by a US agency, the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), under contract to the US Department of Commerce. The IANA operates ostensibly as a unit of a separate, and seemingly more accountable, California-based non-profit called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). Technical standards for the Internet are developed by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and the Internet Architecture Board (IAB) within another non-profit corporation, the Internet Society. The composition and funding of these organisations render them more responsive to US preferences than to users’ demands (5).
The leading global commercial Internet sites are not operated by Chinese or Russian, let alone by Kenyan or Mexican capital. As everyone knows, it is Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple and Amazon that have built up the dotcom services used by people all over the world. And a widening array of commodification projects and corporate commodity chains continues to be predicated on cross-border flows of Internet data; today’s ongoing transition to “cloud computing” services will further widen this dependence. The Internet’s unbalanced control structure provides an essential basis for US corporate and military supremacy in cyberspace. While the US government exercises an outsized role, other states possess scant opportunity — individually or collectively — to regulate the system. By instituting various technical and legal measures, of course, they may exercise sovereignty over their domestic Internets; but even when they stake out these merely national jurisdictions, they are assailed by US policymakers. Milton Mueller aptly captures this asymmetry in observing that, as it is presently constituted, the Internet embodies a US policy of “unilateral globalism” (6).
Exercising this management function has permitted the US to instil property-logic at the heart of Internet system development — through ICANN. Although it is a complex, semi-autonomous institution, ICANN’s power over the Domain Name System was deployed to confer extraterritorial advantages on corporate trademark owners and other property interests — over the protests of non-commercial organisations which, despite being represented within ICANN, found themselves unable to prevail over Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble and other big companies. And ICANN used private contract law to bind to its rules the far-flung organisations which administer generic and country code top-level domains worldwide. National providers of various Internet applications control their domestic markets in a number of countries, including Russia, China and the Republic of Korea. Yet the transnational Internet services — the most profitable and strategic points in this extraterritorial system — are citadels built by US capital and state power.
Nearly from the outset, other nations have resisted their subordinate status. As signs that the US was not about to relinquish its control grew, so did opposition. It helped prompt a series of high-profile meetings — the World Summit on the Information Society, organised by the ITU and held in Geneva and Tunis between 2003 and 2005.
This World Summit was an explicit precursor of the 2012 clash in Dubai, in that it established at least a small beachhead for states (beside that of the US) in global Internet governance. ICANN’s “Government Advisory Committee”, charged with providing input to the organisation’s “multi-stakeholder” process, grants governments the same formal status as corporations and civil society groups. Many states actually might have been content with this curious arrangement, but for one glaring fact. For all the crowing about bottom-up diversity and multi-stakeholderism, global Internet governance was not an egalitarian, or even a pluralist, enterprise. It was patent that stakeholder number one was the US Executive Branch.
The demise of the unipolar moment, followed by the plunge into what has become a long world depression, greatly accentuated and widened interstate conflict over the political economy of cyberspace. Other governments continued to look for a point of leverage, from which they could attempt to open up global Internet coordination and management. In 2010-11 they even appealed directly to the US Department of Commerce, when it began a proceeding to evaluate its contract renewal with IANA for the management of Internet addresses. Quite extraordinarily, several countries and one international organisation — the ITU — submitted formal comments. The government of Kenya proposed a “transition” away from management of the IANA functions by the US Department of Commerce, and toward a multilateral government-centred regime. US control should be modified by globalising the arrangements for the entire institutional superstructure that had been built up around Internet names and addresses. India, Mexico, Egypt and China made strikingly similar submissions.
Dan Schiller is professor at the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign) and author of ‘Digital Capitalism: Networking the Global Market Systems’ (MIT Press, Cambridge, US, 2000)
(3) James Bamford, “The NSA is Building the Country’s Biggest Spy Center”, Wired, San Francisco, April 2012.
(4) Dwayne Winseck, “Big New Global Threat to the Internet or Paper Tiger? The ITU and Global Internet Regulation”, 10 June 2012; dwmw.wordpress.com
(5) Harold Kwalwasser, “Internet Governance”,Cyberpower and National Security, National Defense University Press-Potomac Press, Washington-Dulles, 2009.
(6) Milton L Mueller, Networks and States: the Global Politics of Internet Governance, MIT Press, Cambridge (Massachusetts), 2010.
The US responded by ratcheting up the rhetoric of “Internet freedom” as an attempt to repel the escalating threat to its management control. No doubt it has intensified its bilateral lobbying to induce some of the dissenting states to come back into the fold. The effects became evident at the WCIT, when India and Kenya joined the US in rejecting the treaty.
What will happen now? It’s certain that US government agencies and leading units of Internet capital such as Google will continue to project all the power at their disposal to strengthen the US-centric Internet, and to discredit its opponents. The political challenge to the US’s “global unilateralism”, however, now has broken into the open — where it is certain to remain. A Wall Street Journal editorialist did not hesitate to call Dubai “America’s first big digital defeat” (7).
This article appears in the excellent Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.