It has been an interesting week for those interested in Internet studies. As everyone knows, the International Telecommunications Union is meeting in Dubai for the WCIT, and there has been a bit of a revolt against what might happen. I have made my feelings clear, so there is no need to repeat the points made.
Regardless of all of the Dubai shenanigans, one interesting meme has arisen from the anti-ITU campaign, and it is the almost universal call to keep the Internet free and open. This assumes that the Internet is indeed free and open already. It might not surprise you to learn that I do not believe this to be the case, but allow me to elaborate the reasons behind such a negative view.
The starting point is to understand precisely what “free and open” means. A quick trawl through Twitter and several campaign websites produce a rather cloudy picture of what people understand that the Web should be. Obviously, we are talking about free as in freedom, not free as in beer. But beyond that, the message is a mishmash of anti-government libertarian rhetoric, techno-anarchism, anti-UN messages, and a nebulous idea of how the Internet operates. Some samples:
“Do you think the internet should be for everyone? Then you might want to sign this…”
“Tell the world’s governments out there- keep your filthy hands off of the Internet. Period.”
“Fight to keep an open ecosystem where we can communicate, innovate&collaborate online w/out political interference.”
“Keep the internet free from idiots! Ever voice counts!”
“None of us would be who we are and where we are today without the Internet.”
“Tell the UN to keep their corrupt, scum-covered hands off the internet.”
I tend to agree with some of these statements in principle, while others are over-the-top in the extreme. The commonality in these messages is a certain belief that the status quo is to be maintained, that the Internet is already free and open, and that any effort to make changes to the current system is equivalent to censorship/dictatorship/UN World Government. The problem with some of the tweets sampled above, is that they rest on a fictional ideal of what the Internet really is. Most people who are vaguely familiar with Internet Regulation theories will recognise the above as being the children of a brand of cyber-libertarianism that was made popular by John Perry Barlow in the 1990s. The problem with such a view is that it does not respond to reality, the Internet is under constant regulation, and the idea that it is somehow a free and open space is a fiction.
Fiction? Just look at the evidence. The Great Firewall of China is not infallible, but it works adequately well. When pressed, governments of Egypt and Syria simply pulled the Internet switch and turned it off. The Pirate Bay is now filtered in the UK, the Netherlands, Greece, Belgium, Denmark, and many other countries. Several corporations shut down the capability to provide financial support to Wikileaks, and the site had their hosting and domain name shut down and seized by their providers. The US government has been in a rampage of domain name seizures. Megaupload. The government of Gabon disallowed the award of the site Me.ga. Apple does not allow apps and content into the iTunes store that it deems inappropriate. Google is forced to remove links and content on a daily basis. Social media users in the UK are actually going to jail for things they have expressed online. The number of countries placing some sort of filtering control, enacting restrictive laws, or imposing Internet censorship is growing (and that includes the countries giving lip service to a free and open Web).
Free and open Internet? I wish.
Of course, the debate is not really about regulation, that ship sailed a long time ago regardless of the lingering persistence of cyber-libertarian ideas. What the campaign is really about is an attempt to maintain the existing governance structure. This is a multi-stakeholder system that is supposed to bring together industries, governments, NGOs, academics and users to govern the Web. In other words, it is a fight for the root servers, and a fight over protocols.
Vint Cerf, who is the driving force behind the current campaign, explains:
“Starting in 1973, when my colleagues and I proposed the technology behind the Internet, we advocated for an open standard to connect computer networks together. This wasn’t merely philosophical; it was also practical.
Our protocols were designed to make the networks of the Internet non-proprietary and interoperable. They avoided “lock-in,” and allowed for contributions from many sources. This openness is why the Internet creates so much value today. Because it is borderless and belongs to everyone, it has brought unprecedented freedoms to billions of people worldwide: the freedom to create and innovate, to organize and influence, to speak and be heard.”
This is a worthwhile ideal, but hides a darker underpinning. The current system is not perfect, but it is the best that we have at the moment, and any changes to the present arrangements have to be justified. But underneath the glitzy multi-stakeholder model there is a dark potential for even more problems than anything the ITU could dream of. Imagine for example that ICANN decided one day to extend the domain seizure policy to all registrars. Goodbye Pirate Bay and Wikileaks forever, they would only exist as numbers in some server. This is the prospect that wakes me up at night. And if you think that those behind ICANN would never do something like that, then you have never read SOPA, TPP or CISPA. Hint: they are the same people.
What does it all matter? Here is what really worries me about the current level of the debate regarding the ITU. I predict that the WCIT will not result in any important change to the Internet as we know it, and any approved modifications to the existing International Telecommunication Regulations will not affect the Internet in any meaningful way. I also predict that this failure to reach consensus will be heralded as a victory for those campaigning against the WCIT. What worries me is that this will send the wrong message to thousands of concerned netizens who have been signing the petitions. The belief that the Internet is indeed “free and open” will remain, and the secret of who lies behind the curtain will remain hidden from most, the dangers inherent in the status quo will be forgotten. A false sense of safety is as bad as having bad regulation. The Internet is not free and open. It can be, but for that to happen we need more lasting changes than signing a petition and sending DDoS attacks against a website.
In other words, someone has convinced everyone that we don’t need to strive for a free and open Web, but that it already is.
Apologies for the ominous language, I have been preparing for The Hobbit.