In horror movies, the scariest moments usually come from the monster you cannot see. So the same goes for real life, or at least online life. Over the past few years, largely out of sight, governments have been clawing back freedoms on the internet, turning an invention that was designed to emancipate the individual into a tool for surveillance and control. In the next few months, this process is set to be enshrined internationally, amid plans to put cyberspace under the authority of a largely secretive and obscure UN agency.
If this succeeds, it will be an important boost to states’ plans to censor the Web and to use it to monitor citizens. Virtually all governments are at it. Some are much worse than others. The introduction last month of a law in Russia creating a blacklist of Web sites that contain “extremist” content was merely the latest example of an alarming trend. Authoritarian states have long seen cyberspace as the ultimate threat to their source of power.
They are given succor by self-styled democracies who seek to introduce legislation enhancing the rights of authorities and security agencies to snoop. The British government’s current draft communications bill would produce a system of blanket collection and retention of all online data.
The UK-based watchdog on surveillance and privacy invasions by governments and corporations, Privacy International, pointed out in its submission to the UK parliament: “The technology that will be used is only currently deployed in Kazakhstan, China and Iran ... subjecting citizens to the near certainty of ongoing and unremitting interference in their private lives.”
All governments, whatever their hue, cite similar threats: terrorism and organized crime, child pornography and intellectual property are the ones most commonly used. Unsurprisingly, these, and local variants, are used by dictatorships, who need merely to point to precedents set in the west to counter any criticism with the charge of hypocrisy.
The internet, as originally envisaged, was borderless. In theory, anyone could — if they had access to the bandwidth — find out information anywhere and communicate with anyone. The demarcation between free expression and data and identify privacy on the one hand, and the state’s right to security on the other, is continually debated and recalibrated, partly due to technological advances.
One of the most vigorous places for debate has been the Internet Governance Forum, which since its founding in 2005 has brought together governments, private sector firms large and small, academics and members of civil society. This year’s meeting in November takes place incongruously and intriguingly in Baku, capital of Azerbaijan, a country with a particularly poor record on free expression and suppression of dissent.
What matters, as the lines are drawn, is transparency and inclusivity. If the internet is to be governed more cohesively, and on a less ad hoc basis than now, then it should not be left to governments alone. There has never been a central authority, and the internet has flourished in spite of (or perhaps because of) its decentralized governance model.
The reverse is now in prospect. In December in Dubai, a body that has existed for 150 years but few outside narrow industry circles have heard of, is seeking to take control of the internet. The International Telecommunications Union (ITU), a UN organization that counts 193 countries as its members, aims to add the internet to its existing regulatory roles. Its strongest supporters include regimes such as China, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, who submitted a proposal last September to the UN general assembly for an “international code of conduct for information security.” Its goal is to establish government-led “international norms and rules standardizing the behavior of countries concerning information and cyberspace.”