Last year, the Internet has shown its power over governments, when we all opposed to the SOPA and PIPA legislations in protests across the world, including this very blog. Later on, against ACTA and so on, and we all felt very powerful indeed. Now, a new thread looms over the Internet, the ITU is trying to take over the Internet.
To quote Ars Technica:
Some of the world’s most authoritarian regimes introduced a new proposal at the World Conference on International Telecommunications on Friday that could dramatically extend the jurisdiction of the International Telecommunication Union over the Internet.
Or New Scientist:
This week, 2000 people have gathered for the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates to discuss, in part, whether they should be in charge.
And stressing that:
WHO runs the internet? For the past 30 years, pretty much no one.
When in reality, the Internet of today is actually in the precise state the US is trying to avoid, only that now they’re in control, and the ITU is trying to change it to an international organization, where more countries have a say.
Today, the DNS and the main IP blocks are controlled by the ICANN, however, Ars Technica helps us reminding that ICANN and IANA are:
the quasi-private organizations that currently oversee the allocation of domain names and IP addresses.
But the ICANN was once a US government operated body, still with strong ties with Washington, localized solely on the US soil, operating on US law jurisdiction. They also failed on many accounts to democratize their operations, resulting in little or no impact for international input. Furthermore, all top level domains that are not bound to a country (like .com, .org, .net) are also within American jurisdiction, even if they’re hosted and registered in another country.
But controlling the DNS is only half the story. The control that the US has on the Internet is much more powerful. First, they hold (for historical and economical reasons), most of the backbone of the Internet (root DNS servers, core routers, etc). That means the traffic between Europe and Japan will probably pass through them. In theory, this shouldn’t matter and it’s actually an optimization of the self-structuring routing tables, but in fact, the US government has openly reported that they do indeed monitor all traffic that goes within their borders and they do reserve the right to cut it, if they think this presents a risk of national security.
Given the amount of publicity the TSA had since 2001 for their recognition of what poses a security threat, including Twitter comments from British citizens, I wouldn’t trust them, or their automated detection system to care for my security. Also, given the intrusion that they have on some governments like the case of Dotcom in January, where national security operations in New Zealand were shared inappropriately with the American government, I never felt safe when crossing American soil, physically or through the Internet.
Besides, Hollywood has shown in Scandinavia and in UK that they hold a strong leash on European governments when related to (US) copyright laws, forcing governments, once liberals, to abide to American rules, arresting their own citizens, when content is being distributed over the Internet. It’s also interesting to remember than SOPA, PIPA and ACTA, mainly driven by Hollywood, were all created within closed doors.
So, would ITU control be better?
No. Nothing could be further from the truth. Although, in theory, it’s more democratic (more countries with decision power), this decision power has been sought for one main purpose: to enforce more strict laws. I generally agree that the ITU would not be a good controlling body, but believing that nobody controls the Internet is, at least, naive, and normally a pretentious lie.
A legal control of many countries over something as free as the Internet would impose the same dangers as having it free of legal control, since it leaves us with indirect control from the strongest player, which so far, has been the US. The other countries are only so strongly minded about the ITU because the US won’t let them have their voices, and the ITU is a way to create an UN for the Internet.
In that sense, the ITU would be a lot like the UN. Worthless. A puppet in the hands or the strong players. Each country would have more control over their borders, and that would impact almost nothing in the US, but the general rules would stop being valid, and the US (and other countries) would have to do a lot more work than they do today. One example is the stupid rule in the UK where the sites, including international ones, have to warn users that they are using cookies.
Don’t be fooled, the US government is not really worried about your safety and security, nor your freedom. They’re trying to avoid a lot of work, and a big loss in market in the Middle East and South Asia. With countries (that they like to say are authoritarian regimes) imposing stricter rules on traffic, including fees, taxes and other things that they have on material goods, the commerce with those governments will be a lot more expensive.
Ever since the second world war, the US economy is based mainly on military activities. First, helping Europe got them out of the big depression, then they forced rebellions throughout Latin America to keep the coins clinking and currently, it’s the Middle East. With the climate change endangering their last non-war resources (oil), they were betting on the Internet to spread the American Way Of Life to the less fortunate, with the off chance of selling a few iPads on the process, but now, that profit margin is getting dangerously thin.
Not to mention the military threat, since a lot of the intelligence is now being gathered through the Internet, and recent attacks on Iranian nuclear power plants via the Stuxnet worm, would all become a lot harder. The fact that China is now bigger and more powerful than they are, in every possible aspect (I dare say even military, but we can’t know for sure), is also not helping.
What is then, the solution? Is it possible to really have nobody running the Internet? And, if at all possible, is it desirable?
Mad Max Internet
I don’t think so.
It’s true that IPv6 should remove completely the need for IP allocation, but DNS is a serious problem. Letting DNS registration to an organic self-organized process would lead to widespread malicious content being distributed and building security measures around it would be much harder than they already are. The same is true with SSL certificates. You’d expect that, on a land with no rules, trusted bodies would charge a fortune and extort clients for a safe SSL certificate, if they actually produce a good one, that is, but this is exactly what happens today, on ICANN rule.
Routing would also be affected, since current algorithms rely on total trust between parties. There was a time when China had all US traffic (including governmental and military) through its routers, solely done via standard BGP rules. On a world where every country has its own core router, digitally attacking another country would be as easy as changing one line on a router.
We all love to think that the Internet is a free world already, but more often than ever, people are being arrested for their electronic behaviour. Unfortunately, because there isn’t a set of rules, or a governing body, the rules that get people arrested are the rules of the strongest player, which in our current case, is Hollywood. So, how is it possible to reconcile security, anonymity and stability without recurring to governing bodies?
The simple answer is, it’s not. The Internet is a land with no physical barriers, where contacting people over 1000s of miles is the same as the one besides you, but we don’t live in a world without borders. It’s not possible to reconcile the laws of all countries, with all the different cultures, into one single book. As long as the world keeps its multiculturalism, we have to cope with different rules for different countries, and I’m not in favour of losing our identity just to make the Internet a place comfortable to the US government.
It is my opinion that we do, indeed, need a regulating body. ICANN, ITU, it doesn’t matter, as long as the decisions are good for most.
I don’t expect that any such governing body would come up with a set of rules that are good for everybody, nor that they’ll find the best rules in the first N iterations (for large N), but if the process is fair, we should reach consensus (when N tends to infinity). The problem with both ICANN and ITU is that neither are fair, and there are other interests at play that are weighted much more than the interests of the people.
Since no regulating body, governmental or not, will ever account for the interests of the people (today or ever), people tend to hope that no-rule is the best rule, but I hope I have shown that this is not true. I believe that instead, a governing multi-body is the real solution. It’s hypocrite to believe that Russia will let the US create regulations within its borders, so we can’t assume that will ever happen from start, if we want it to work in the long run. So this multi-body, composed by independent organizations in Europe, Asia, Oceania, Africa and Americas would have strong powers on their regions, but would have to agree on very general terms.
The general terms would be something like:
- There should be no cost associated with the traffic to/from/across any country to any other country
- There should be no filtering of any content across countries, but filtering should be possible to/from a specific country or region based on religious or legal grounds
- It should be possible for countries to deny certain types of traffic (as opposed to filtering above), so that routing around would be preferred
- Misuse of Internet protocols (such as BGP and DNS spoofing) on root routers/DNS servers should be considered an international crime with the country responsible for the server in charge of the punishments or sanctions against that country could be enforced by the UN
- Legal rights and responsibilities on the Internet should be similar (but not identical) as they are on the physical world, but each country has the right and duty to enforce their own rules
Rule 1 is fundamental and would cut short most of the recent ITU’s proposals. It’s utter nonsense to cross-charge the Internet as it is to do it with telecoms around the world, and that is probably the biggest problem of the new proposal.
Rules 2 and 3 would leave control over regional Internet with little impact on the rest. It’d also foment creation of new routes around problematic countries, which is always beneficial to the Internet reliability as a whole. It’s hypocrite to assume that the US government has the right to impose Internet rules on countries like Iran or China, and it’s up to the people of China and Iran to fight their leaders on their own terms.
It’s extremely hypocrite, and very common, in the US to believe that their system (the American Way of Life) is the best for every citizen of the world, or that the people of other countries have no way of choosing their own history. It’s also extremely hypocrite to blame authoritarian governments on Internet regulations and at the same time provide weapons and support local authoritarian groups. Let’s not forget the role of the US on Afghanistan and Iraq prior to the Gulf War, as opposition to Russia and Iran (respectively), and their pivot role on all major authoritarian revolution in Latin America.
Most countries, including Russia and the ones in Middle East would probably be fine with rules 2 and 3, with little impact on the rest of the world. Which leaves us with rule 4, to account for the trust-worthiness of the whole system. Today, there is a gang of a few pals who control the main routers and giving more control over less trust-worthy pals over DNS and BGP routes would indeed be a problem.
However, in fact, this rule is in vigour today, since China routed US traffic for only 18 minutes. It was more a show of power than a real attack, but had China been doing this for too long, the US would think otherwise and with very strong reasons. The loose control is good, but the loose responsibility is not. Countries should have the freedom to structure their Internet backbones but also do it responsibly, or be punished otherwise.
Finally, there’s rule 5. How to account when a citizen of one country behaves in another country’s website as it’s legal for his culture, but not the other? Strong religious and ethical issues will arise from that, but nothing that there isn’t already on the Internet. Most of the time, this problem is identical to what already happens on the real world, with people from one country that commit crimes on another country. The hard bit is to know what are the differences between physical and logical worlds and how to reconcile the differences in interpretation of the multiple groups that will take part on such governing multi-body.
ITU’s proposal is not good, but ICANN’s is neither. The third alternative, to lack complete control is only going to make it worse, so we need a solution that is both viable and general enough, so that most countries agree to it. It also needs to relinquish control of internal features to their own governments in a way to not affect the rest of the Internet.
I argue that one single body, being it ITU or ICANN, is not a good model, since it’s not general enough nor they account for specific regions’ concerns (ICANN won’t listen to the Middle East and ITU won’t regard the US). So, the only solution I can see possible is one that unites them all into a governing multi-body, with very little in global agreement, but with general rules powerful enough to guarantee that the Internet will be free forever.
The American constitution is a beautiful piece of writing, but in reality, over the years, their government have destroyed most of its beauty. So, long term self-check must also be a core part of this multi-body, with regular review and democratic decisions (sorry authoritarian regimes, it’s the only way).
In a nutshell, while it is possible to write the Internet Constitution and make it work in the long term, humanity is very likely not ready to do that yet, and we’ll probably see the destruction of the Internet in the next 10 years.