What a difference a scandal makes.
Turn your minds, if you may, to December 2012. The Syrian civil war enters one of its most deadly passages. The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and Bruce Springsteen perform a benefit concert for victims of Hurricane Sandy at Madison Square Garden. The Duchess of Cambridge leaves hospital following treatment for severe morning sickness. Anastasiya Petryk from Ukraine wins the Junior Eurovision Song Contest 2012…
… and the Internet is awash with articles, campaigns and warnings against the possible takeover of the Internet by totalitarian governments on the back of the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT). The narrative repeated in blog posts and op-eds across the Web followed the same script: the Internet is Free and Open™ and as such it is under threat by Russia, China and Saudi Arabia, who want to use the UN system to break the current model that makes Cyberspace great.
This is a persuasive storyline for anyone who believes that the status quo is working well. But the problem of course is that this rests on the assumption that the multi-stakeholder model accurately describes where control over the Internet lies. The problem for the proponents of the system as it exists is that such an assumption is increasingly resting on shaky ground, and we have discovered that the Free and Open Internet is a nice tale, and that control lies elsewhere. In the last few months we have learned that the NSA has in place a large snooping apparatus that can target individuals from around the world, practically at will. At the same time, large numbers of people are subjected to surveillance via the Internet, which is only possible because intelligence agencies have placed taps on the basic infrastructure of the network, including data communications within large Web companies such as Google and Yahoo. Even if communications are encrypted, the NSA has built back-doors in security standards and cryptographic solutions which allow them to unscramble collected data.
All of the above amounts to a monumental breaking of trust which is a prerequisite for the multi-stakeholder approach to work. If a country has a structural advantage over everyone else, and the current edifice is created with that in mind, then it is clear that making use of such a position for nefarious purposes is tantamount to abreach of said trust.
So the big change that has taken place has been that Internet governance has become a hot topic again, and a revolution is brewing. Brazil has been at the forefront of asking questions about the implications of the Snowden files, and has even managed to get ICANN, a body with real ties to the United States, to attend a future summit on Internet governance next year.
But what will happen now? Will there be a complete revolution on how the Internet is governed? I see the following possible scenarios emerging:
- The scandal will be forgotten, nothing will happen, the Internet will remain as it is.
- Some cosmetic changes will occur, but everything will remain the same.
- The core institutions governing the Web will become full detached from US influence in name, but behind the scenes things will remain the same.
- The end of US-dominance.
- A truly International system emerges.
- The UN is given more power through the IGF and the ITU.
- A new institution emerges.
I have an even wilder scenario… an Internet Governance War, where countries try to compete with their own versions. From this an even wilder idea is that a truly decentralized and bottom-up Internet arises from the ashes of the conflict.
But that is the subject of another story. Stay tuned.