Internet wars

| October 4, 2012 | 0 Comments

By Fen Osler Hampson and
Gordon S. Smith

At the end of the year, the nations of the world will convene at the Gulf port city of Dubai to renegotiate key

Russia, China, India and Brazil want to bring the internet under the control of the United Nations.

Russia, China, India and Brazil want to bring the internet under the control of the United Nations.

provisions of the International Telecommunications Regulations (ITR), a UN treaty that governs the use of the airwaves, but not the internet. It is already shaping up to be a battle royal because some countries, including Brazil, China, India and Russia, want to bring the internet under the control of the United Nations. They are opposed by the United States and many — though not all — Western nations that tend to favour the status quo and a liberal, multi-stakeholder regime that is generally free of greater state control.

The issues on the table are complex, but they boil down to the following: (1) granting states new powers of taxation over internet usage; (2) issues of privacy and whether governments should play a greater role in surveillance and monitoring of the internet by acquiring access to the real names and identities of online
users; and (3) transferring management authority for the internet from ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) — a private, multi-stakeholder body that currently oversees the use and operations of the internet by, for example, co-ordinating the assignment of internet domain names and user protocols — to the ITU (International Telecommunication Union) or a new intergovernmental authority.
Internet security is also a major challenge. There is a rapidly growing risk that individuals affiliated with Anonymous (or others) could launch truly devastating attacks triggered by the World Conference on International Telecommunications in Dubai (or some other perceived grievance) to shut the entire internet down. Such is the fear of government officials that Gen. Keith B. Alexander, who heads the Pentagon’s National Security Agency (NSA), recently implored hackers to work together with government to promote a safer and more secure internet.

The internet is also caught up in global equity wars between the industrialized and developing nations and fast-growing emerging economies of the south. Led by Russia, China and India, some countries want to be able to directly tax internet service providers and users to generate the revenues they claim they need to make the internet more widely available to their own people. But there is also a hidden purpose behind this quest for greater state control. Spooked by the “great awakening” that has swept much of the Arab World, authoritarian regimes view the internet and mobile technology as a real threat to their own political survival, not least because of the extraordinary powers of political mobilization available to dissidents through these new technologies.

The battle for control over the internet in Dubai is likely to be a prolonged one and will not end with the meeting in December. Although the main protagonists in Dubai are nation-states, they are not the only actors or interests in this global e-drama. Others include the major internet providers (the top 20 companies that field 90 percent of the world’s internet traffic); movie studios, songwriters, publishers and other producers of artistic or intellectual content that can be exchanged and downloaded on the internet; technology companies such as Google, AOL, eBay, and Twitter, ad brokers and other intermediaries who do business with those who operate sites where “free” movies and songs can be uploaded; political activists; the champions of free speech who populate the academic and legal communities; business and commercial interests of every stripe and variety who ply their wares on the internet, including banks and credit card companies; hackers who challenge computer security systems for a variety of good and bad reasons; criminal elements who exploit the internet for their own shady ends; law enforcement agencies; and ordinary citizens who have real concerns about their personal safety and right to privacy when they go online.

Many of these interests were mobilized in the so-called SOPA wars in the U.S., which marked Round One in the current battle for the internet. The Stop Online Piracy Act of the U.S. Congress was an ill-fated attempt to lower the boom on internet piracy that cost Hollywood studios and the song-writing industry dearly. Congress retreated by shelving the legislation, not least because the U.S. is in an election year. The highly successful lobbying campaign against the legislation by technology companies, which harnessed the power of social media and a public blackout, was too much for Washington’s skittish political class to bear.
Canada is not immune to these battles. Bill C-11 (the Copyright Modernization Act) is the federal government’s latest attempt to bring Canada’s copyright protection laws in line with those of the rest of the industrialized world. It has come under similar attack by two groups. One champions adoption of the mantle of “free internet” speech. The other is concerned about the wider ramifications of digital locks, and campaigns against Canada updating its laws, notwithstanding that Canada is a haven for digital piracy.
Canada’s outdated laws have not been changed since 1996 to deal with the protection of copyrighted works in the internet environment. Our reputation for lax laws is the same among the pirates as among our major trading partners — the U.S., EU, among others. Isohunt, for example, has long bragged about its ability to carry on business in Canada.

The internet is one place where technological advancements will always be 10 steps ahead of the regulators and those who favour controls. But the notion that the “internet pirates will always win,” as argued by New York Times writer Nick Bilton, does not withstand close scrutiny. Some countries, like France, have successfully introduced laws to deter counterfeiters and penalize those who illegally share files in an attempt to move them away from illegitimate sources and towards legitimate online sites and services. Several studies on the impact of France’s “three strikes” anti-piracy law, which has cut internet piracy in half, have demonstrated a significant reduction in online infringement and a corresponding increase in legitimate sales.
Or take the example of Kim Dotcom, the founder of Megaupload, one of the world’s biggest illegal cyberlockers, who was arrested in New Zealand by law enforcement officials just as Congress was beating a hasty retreat on SOPA. The fact that some individuals will always try to break the law is not a good reason not to have laws to deter and punish criminals.

At the end of the day, however, we all have an interest in promoting an internet that works for everyone involved in its ecosystem. As individuals, we want governments to respect the right to privacy when we go online. But that right is not an absolute one. It should not allow sexual predators and those with criminal interests to go online and prey on innocent children or steal from the unsuspecting, the elderly, or the just plain naïve.

We also do not want to give despots the power to control the flow of communications in cyberspace by giving them the authority to restrict freedom of expression and access to information or to deny their citizens the right to congregate and mobilize in cyberspace.

We should not forget that the right to property is a fundamental one in a free and just society and that right must be respected, even on the internet. Those who have invested their sweat and tears in acts of artistic and literary creation should be allowed to enjoy the full fruits of their labours.

The internet, like any other marketplace for goods, services and ideas, cannot be a lawless place if it is to function effectively. Like the Wild West, it, too, will have to be tamed, not necessarily by giving states and international organizations greater powers, but by looking at ways to strengthen the present system of multi-stakeholder governance. The goal here is an internet more reliable and less prone to disruptions (deliberate or inadvertent), more neutral, more global, and more open but also more respectful of the individual, property rights and the basic rule of law.


Fen Osler Hampson is Distinguished Fellow and Director of Global Security at the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) and Chancellor’s Professor at Carleton University. Gordon S. Smith is a Distinguished Fellow at CIGI and Canada’s former deputy minister of Foreign Affairs.

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