Parminder Jeet Singh*
Other News has decided that it is vital to support this crucial campaign. We ask our readers if they agree, sign the appeal before the 16th of May. My warmest regards, Roberto Savio.
A draft statement by civil society organizations for the UN CSTD meeting on ‘Enhanced Cooperation on Public Policy Issues Pertaining to the Internet’ to take place in Geneva on May 18th, 2012 (**)
The Internet is a major force today, restructuring our economic, social, political and cultural systems. Most people implicitly assume that it is basically a beneficent force, needing, if at all, some caution only at the user-end. This may have been true in the early stages when the Internet was created and initially sustained by benevolent actors, including academics, technologists, and start-up enterprises that challenged big businesses. However, we are past that stage now. What was a public network of millions of digital spaces, is now largely a conglomeration of a few proprietary spaces. (A few websites like Google, Facebook, Twitter and Amazon together make much of what is considered the Internet by most people today.) We are also moving away from a browser-centric architecture of the ‘open’ Internet to an applications-driven mobile Internet, which is even more closed and ruled by proprietary spaces (like App Store and Android Market). In fact, some Internet plans for mobiles come with only a few big websites and applications and not the full ‘public’ Internet, which is an ominous pointer to the possible future of the Internet. With its muchtouted egalitarian potential being left far behind, the Internet, which started off as a global public resource, is well on its way to becoming a set of private enclosures, and a means for entrenching dominant power.
Who governs the Internet
It is not a coincidence nor a natural order of things that the Internet, and through it, our future societies, are headed in the way of unprecedented private gate-keeping and rentier-ing. The architecture of the Internet is being actively shaped today by the most powerful forces, both economic and political. A few US based companies increasingly have monopoly control over most of the Internet. The US government itself controls some of the most crucial nodes of the global digital network. Together, these two forces, in increasing conjunction, are determining the techo-social structure of a new unipolar world. It is important for progressive actors to urgently address this situation, through seeking globally democratic forms of governance of the Internet.
While the US government and US based monopoly Internet companies already have a close working relationship to support and further each other’s power, this relationship is now being formalised through new power compacts; whether in the area of extra-territorial IP enforcement (read, global economic extraction) through legislations like SOPA , or in the area of security (read, global extension of coercive power) through cyber-security legislations like CIPSA.
The US government has stubbornly refused to democratise the oversight of the Internet’s root server and domain name system, which it controls. While the US pooh-poohs the security concerns expressed by other countries vis-a-vis such unacceptable unilateralism, it rather hypocritical seeks to contractually obligate the non-profit managing these key infrastructures to appoint its security officials only on US government’s advice. (The chief security officer of this non-profit body is, in fact, already a sworn member of the ‘Homeland Security Advisory Council’ of the US!)
Apart from the direct application of US law and whims (think Wikileaks) over the global Internet, and Internet-based social activity (increasingly a large part of our social existence), default global law is also being written by the clubs of powerful countries that routinely draft Internet policies and policy frameworks today. The OECD and Council of Europe are two active sites of such policy making, covering areas like cyber-security, Internet intermediary liability, search engines, social networking sites etc. Last year, OECD came out with its ‘Principles for Internet Policy-Making’. These Principles, heavy on IP enforcement and private policing through large North-based Internet companies, are to guide Internet policies in all OECD countries. Recently, OECD decided to ‘invite’ other, non-OECD, countries to accede to these Principles.
This is the new paradigm of global governance, where the powerful countries make the laws and the rest of the world must accept and implement them.
Who is not allowed at the governance table, and should be there While Northern countries are very active at Internet related policy- and law-making, which have extraterritorial ambition and reach, they strongly resist any UN based initiative for development of global Internet principles and policies. This is in keeping with the increasingly common Northern efforts at undermining UN/ multi-lateral frameworks in other global governance arenas like trade, IP etc. For instance; trying to keep global financial systems out of UNCTAD’s purview at the recent Doha UNCTAD meeting, and bringing in Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) as a new instrument of extraterritorial IP enforcement by the OECD, bypassing WIPO.
The mandate of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) for building a globally democratic space for developing Internet related global policies is quite clear. The WSIS outcome document states that, “the process towards enhanced cooperation (on Internet-related international public policies), (is) to be started by the UN Secretary-General … by the end of the first quarter of 2006”. However, six years down the line, developed countries do not seem to be willing to even formally discuss how to operationalize this very important WSIS mandate of ‘enhanced cooperation’, much less do something concrete about it. We, the undersigned civil society organizations, affirm that the Internet must be governed democratically, with the equal involvement of all people, groups and countries. Its governance systems must be open, transparent and inclusive, with civil society given adequate avenues of meaningful substantive participation. While we denounce statist control over the Internet sought by many governments at national levels, we believe that the struggle at the global level also has significant dynamics of a different kind. Our demands with respect to ‘global’ Internet Governance espouse a simple and obvious democratic logic. On the technical governance side, the oversight of Internet’s critical technical and logical infrastructure, at present with the US government, should be transferred to an appropriate, democratic and participative, multi-lateral body, without disturbing the existing distributed architecture of technical governance of the Internet in any significant way. (However, improvements in the technical governance systems are certainly needed.) On the side of larger Internet related public policy making, on global social, economic, cultural and political issues, the OECD-based model of global policy making, as well as the default application of US laws, should be replaced by a new UN-based democratic mechanism. Any such new arrangement should be based on the principle of subsidiarity, and be innovative in terms of its mandate, structure, and functions, to be adequate to the unique requirements of global Internet governance. It must be fully participative, promoting, and not stifling, the innovative and democratic potential of the Internet.
The Internet should be governed on the principles of human liberty, equality and fraternity. It should be based on the accepted principle of the indivisibility of human rights; espousing civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, and also people’s collective right to development. A rights-based agenda should be developed as an alternative to the current neo-liberal model driving the development of the Internet, and consequently the evolution of an information society. The UN is the appropriate place for developing and implementing such an alternative agenda. Expedient labelling by the most powerful forces in the Internet arena, of the UN, and of developing countries, as being interested only in ‘controlling the Internet’, and under this cover, continually shaping the architecture of the Internet and its social paradigm to further their narrow interests, is a bluff that must be called.
We demand that a Working Group of the UN Commission on Science and Technology for Development (CSTD) be instituted to explore possible ways of implementing ‘enhanced cooperation’ for global Internet-related policies. (Such a CSTD Working Group is also being sought by some developing countries.) ‘Enhanced cooperation’ must be implemented through innovative multi-lateral mechanisms, that are participatory. Global Internet policy-making cannot be allowed to remain the preserve of one country or clubs of rich countries. If the Internet is to promote democracy in the world, which incidentally is the much touted agenda of the US and other Northern countries, the Internet itself has, first, to be governed democratically.
*Executive Director, IT for Change, In Special Consultative Status with the United Nations ECOSOC
**If you would like to support this statement, kindly send your endorsement – organisational or personal– to firstname.lastname@example.org, before 16th May.