Until now, a number of organizations have shared responsibility: groups with an alphabet soup of acronyms, from ICANN (Internet Corporation of Assigned Names and Numbers, a US-based not-for-profit organization that assigns domains) to IGF (Internet Governance Forum, which brings together companies, civil society groups, governments and techies for an annual week of discussions on the future of the net).
At the recent IGF in Indonesia the Chinese were, for the first time, out in force. One “expert” offered to explain to a US Department of State official why US human rights standards are not up to scratch and how China could help.
Gatherings such as these are often cumbersome, but they have the benefit of being open to all voices — multi-stakeholder in geek jargon. All this could change. Moves are afoot to give a long-established, but previously low-profile UN organization — the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) — jurisdiction over the Web. The ITU is the preserve of governments alone.
It is not just the Chinese and Russians who are keen on this change. India, Brazil and South Africa are among a number of emerging powers that want to prize control away from groups considered friendly to the US and toward the ITU. The most recent move, in Dubai in December last year, narrowly failed. Thanks to the NSA furor, it will be easier next time.
Matters are likely to come to a head in April, when Brazil holds a special conference focusing on securing user privacy from the prying eyes of US and other intelligence services. One idea being mooted is to require Internet service providers to host data country by country, and thereby be answerable to local laws.
On the one hand, this could be seen as an understandable and laudable fightback, but the Balkanization of the net could also reinforce the control of nation states over global digital citizens.
US dominance of the Internet is being challenged on several fronts. US President Barack Obama’s administration and its spooks only have themselves to blame. It is just possible that recent events could usher in a new era of transparency and data protection.
However, do not bet on it. The direction of travel is more likely moving toward the authoritarians.
As one Chinese interlocutor put it to me: “We should cleanse negative information, which jeopardizes good order.”
John Kampfner is the former chief executive of Index on Censorship.