New challenge to US hegemony: Masters of the Internet

The US calls loudly for ‘Internet freedom’, but it is Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple and Amazon that have built up the dotcom services used by people all over the world. Is that now about to change? – Published on Le Monde Diplomatique/english Edition, by Dan Schiller, February 2013.

The geopolitics of the Internet broke open during the first half of December at an international conference in Dubai convened by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a UN affiliate agency with 193 national members. At these meetings, states (thronged by corporate advisors) forge agreements to enable international communications via cables and satellites. 

These gatherings, however boring and bureaucratic, are crucial because of the enormous importance of networks in the operation of the transnational political economy.

The December 2012 World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) in Dubai produced a major controversy: should ITU members vest the agency with oversight responsibilities for the Internet, responsibilities comparable to those it has exercised for decades for other forms of international communication?

The United States said no, and the US position won out: the new ITU treaty document did not grant the agency a formal role in what has come to be called “global Internet governance”. However, a majority of countries voted to attach a resolution “invit[ing] member states to elaborate on their respective position on international Internet-related technical, development and public policy issues within the mandate of the ITU at various ITU fora.” Objecting to “even symbolic global oversight”, as a New York Times writer put it (1), the US refused to sign the treaty and walked away. So did France, Germany, Japan, India, Kenya, Colombia, Canada, Britain and other nations. However, more than two-thirds of the attending countries — 89 all told — endorsed the document. (And some of the nations that did not sign may accept the treaty later.)

To understand what is at stake we need to make our way through the rhetorical smog. For months prior to the WCIT, the Euro-American press trumpeted warnings that this was to be an epochal clash between upholders of an open Internet and would-be government usurpers, led by authoritarian states like Russia, Iran and China. The terms of reference were set so rigidly that one European telecom company executive called it a campaign of “propaganda warfare” (2).

Freedom of expression is no trifling issue. No matter where we live, there is reason for worry that the Internet’s relative openness is being usurped, corroded or canalised. This does not necessarily imply armies of state censors or “great firewalls”. The US National Security Agency, for example, sifts wholesale through electronic transmissions transiting satellite and cable networks, through its extensive “listening posts” and its gigantic new data centre at Bluffdale Utah (3); and the US government has gone after a true proponent of freedom of expression — WikiLeaks — in deadly earnest. US Internet companies such as Facebook and Google have transformed the Web into a “surveillance engine” to vacuum up commercially profitable data about users’ behaviour.

Interests concealed: … //

Property logic:

Exercising this management function has permitted the US to instil property-logic at the heart of Internet system development — through ICANN. Although it is a complex, semi-autonomous institution, ICANN’s power over the Domain Name System was deployed to confer extraterritorial advantages on corporate trademark owners and other property interests — over the protests of non-commercial organisations which, despite being represented within ICANN, found themselves unable to prevail over Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble and other big companies. And ICANN used private contract law to bind to its rules the far-flung organisations which administer generic and country code top-level domains worldwide. National providers of various Internet applications control their domestic markets in a number of countries, including Russia, China and the Republic of Korea. Yet the transnational Internet services — the most profitable and strategic points in this extraterritorial system — are citadels built by US capital and state power.

Nearly from the outset, other nations have resisted their subordinate status. As signs that the US was not about to relinquish its control grew, so did opposition. It helped prompt a series of high-profile meetings — the World Summit on the Information Society, organised by the ITU and held in Geneva and Tunis between 2003 and 2005.

This World Summit was an explicit precursor of the 2012 clash in Dubai, in that it established at least a small beachhead for states (beside that of the US) in global Internet governance. ICANN’s “Government Advisory Committee”, charged with providing input to the organisation’s “multi-stakeholder” process, grants governments the same formal status as corporations and civil society groups. Many states actually might have been content with this curious arrangement, but for one glaring fact. For all the crowing about bottom-up diversity and multi-stakeholderism, global Internet governance was not an egalitarian, or even a pluralist, enterprise. It was patent that stakeholder number one was the US Executive Branch.

The demise of the unipolar moment, followed by the plunge into what has become a long world depression, greatly accentuated and widened interstate conflict over the political economy of cyberspace. Other governments continued to look for a point of leverage, from which they could attempt to open up global Internet coordination and management. In 2010-11 they even appealed directly to the US Department of Commerce, when it began a proceeding to evaluate its contract renewal with IANA for the management of Internet addresses. Quite extraordinarily, several countries and one international organisation — the ITU — submitted formal comments. The government of Kenya proposed a “transition” away from management of the IANA functions by the US Department of Commerce, and toward a multilateral government-centred regime. US control should be modified by globalising the arrangements for the entire institutional superstructure that had been built up around Internet names and addresses. India, Mexico, Egypt and China made strikingly similar submissions.

The US responded by ratcheting up the rhetoric of “Internet freedom” as an attempt to repel the escalating threat to its management control. No doubt it has intensified its bilateral lobbying to induce some of the dissenting states to come back into the fold. The effects became evident at the WCIT, when India and Kenya joined the US in rejecting the treaty.

What will happen now? It’s certain that US government agencies and leading units of Internet capital such as Google will continue to project all the power at their disposal to strengthen the US-centric Internet, and to discredit its opponents. The political challenge to the US’s “global unilateralism”, however, now has broken into the open — where it is certain to remain. A Wall Street Journal editorialist did not hesitate to call Dubai “America’s first big digital defeat” (7).

(full text, notes 1 to 7).

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