UN Debates Internet Regulation
The United Nations have been discussing a global effort to regulate free information via the internet.
In the wake of WikiLeaks, we should have expected this sort of reaction from the corridors of power. The de-centralized nature of the internet is good enough for material consumption to sustain economies, but problematic when the very nature of state and financial power–which is centralized–is called into question.
We might further say that free speech is permissible as long as its practitioners confine themselves to a neutered form of state criticism (in most western democracies, excepting authoritarian regimes like China), as voiced publicly or symbolically by voting; but, expand the definition of free speech to a free flow of information and governments become all too aware of their fragile grip on control.
According to Australia’s ITNews, at the UN’s Commission on Science & Technology gathering, “Representatives from Brazil called for an international body made up of Government representatives that would attempt to create global standards for policing the internet—specifically in reaction to challenges such as WikiLeaks.”
There is but one response in the case of all states, since they are all threatened: regulating internet free speech to control the free flow of information. The UN gathering of December 15-17 was a response to ECOSOC Resolution 2010/2, which, when read, is so infected with labyrinthine citations and footnotes that it would make David Foster Wallace blush and Terry Gilliam’s bureaucratic hatred multiply.
ECOSOC Resolution 2010/2 states in the Internet Governance section that the World Summit on the Information Society:
“Reaffirms the principles enunciated at the World Summit that the Internet has evolved into a global facility available to the public, that its governance should constitute a core issue of the information society agenda and that the international management of the Internet should be multilateral, transparent and democratic, with the full involvement of Governments, the private sector, civil society and international organizations. Reaffirms the principles enunciated at the World Summit that the Internet has evolved into a global facility available to the public, that its governance should constitute a core issue of the information society agenda and that the international management of the Internet should be multilateral, transparent and democratic, with the full involvement of Governments, the private sector, civil society and international organizations.”
The language suggests all interests will be involved, including ‘civil society’ (code for citizens who are content with the status quo). Absent from this is any mention of the right of people to have access to information–elevating states, corporations (private sector) and international organizations above the rights of the people. Does anyone actually believe that those most threatened by free information will allow those who benefit most (the people) a role in the debate of internet governance?
In fact, only government was represented at this gathering, causing a stir amongst internet advocates. As Vint Cerf (Google’s Chief Internet Evangelist) points out:
“The beauty of the Internet is that it’s not controlled by any one group. Its governance is bottoms-up—with academics, non-profits, companies and governments all working to improve this technological wonder of the modern world. This model has not only made the Internet very open—a testbed for innovation by anyone, anywhere—it’s also prevented vested interests from taking control.”
From taking control.
Vested interests–those naturally opposed to the free flow of information–would like to take control. What does control look like? China. Saudi Arabia. North Korea. Any state that attempts to control what governments, created by people after all, generate in the form of documents detailing policy decisions–decisions supposedly taken in the best interest of all. Only fools believe in such absurdities.
Behind every mass interest, behind every public assurance of actions taken on behalf of the greater good, lies a special interest–a vested interest. And there are those who might still believe that state power can ensure the greater good. Of course the stakeholders of power and influence, whether state or corporate (though what is the difference these days?), would want to tame the internet in the wake of WikiLeaks, disregarding the many billions of people worldwide who desire a free flow of information by way of transparency.
The states with membership in the UN are to decide on international internet regulation?
They are states. And as states they represent the positions of power and those who possess it. The decisions will be arrived at by a small number of people from each member state by way of personal opinion, legitimized (we are told) through professional credentials in diplomatic, legislative, bureaucratic and corporate sectors.
For perhaps the first time in recorded history, human civilization possesses the means to distribute widely and with instantaneous velocity vast amounts of information. For the first time, states cannot keep many of the inner workings of government hidden.
And so a two-fold reflex is occurring. The first: the tightening of information controls at the highest level of government. Cut off access to the information. But, that is not enough, for there will always be those individuals who will leak information because their conscience demands it. What then? Control the internet.
Steps must be taken to combat this sort of authoritarian impulse by ensuring channels by which information can circumvent any control. And if this internet is to be controlled, let an underground internet flourish and rise up from the ashes of this one.
As Cerf noted in his blog post:
“We don’t believe governments should be allowed to grant themselves a monopoly on Internet governance. The current bottoms-up, open approach works—protecting users from vested interests and enabling rapid innovation. Let’s fight to keep it that way.”
Has there been an over-reaction to the UN’s Internet Governance Forum (IGF)? Perhaps. As Ars Technica’s Nate Anderson noted, the IGF does not have any decision-making powers and many governments aren’t about to listen to China and Saudi Arabia talk internet governance, especially after China’s diplomat Yang Xiaokun denied that China censors information.
But, it seems that Anderson’s article misses a critical point. The fact that internet governance is even being discussed at all in the UN is troubling, even if the discussion is being held within a non-decision-making body. Their opinions will surely influence decision-making bodies and are representative of state opinion on free information.
He is right, however, that Brazil’s mention of WikiLeaks in the forum might worry people–as it should.