Interview with Dr Jovan Kurbalija on the occasion of the January webinar on Internet governance
Last year ended with the beginning of a “cold war” at the World International Telecommunication Union (ITU) meeting in Dubai. What is the forecast for the “weather” in 2013?
The Internet governance forecast for 2013 could be cloudy with sunny spells, windy at times. The times of blue sky in Internet politics with few controversies is behind us. But, it is also too early to describe the new phase as an ice age or a cold war. The Dubai conference with sharp division along the developed/developing countries line could look like the beginning of a cold war.
But, if we zoom out and look at the totality of global Internet politics, one can see more of variable geometry in the position of the main actors. For example, while the EU supported the United States in opposition to the revisions of the International Telecommunication Regulations (ITR) in Dubai, the EU sides with many developing countries when it comes to the need for the internationalisation of ICANN, which is currently legally incorporated in the United States. The “variable geometry” of the IG political space,with actors joining forces in agreement on some issues, and against each other on other issues, is very dynamic and healthy. It provides more space for a possible compromise than a sharp division in the “cold war” style.
Why has Internet politics become so visible?
Well, according to a global study by the Boston Consulting Group, more than 60% of people would rather stop drinking coffee oralcohol, or eating chocolate, for a year, than giving up their Internet. This study confirms what we know intuitively. We depend a lot on the Internet; our online presence is deeply embedded in our daily routines and our way of living. However, our dependence on the Internet is inversely proportional to our understanding of by whom, how, and where this new realm of our existence is governed. For a long time, Internet governance has been the province of geeks, computer engineers, and a few enthusiasts.
This started changing in 2012, when the risk of open access to the Internet, caused by policy initiatives such as Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), triggered protests by the broader public, both online and in city squares. The WCIT in Dubai moved Internet governance into the premier league of the global politics. This trend will accelerate, and we will see more and more global meetings addressing the question of Internet governance.
What are the main positions in Internet governance that are likely to take form in the forthcoming period?
On one side, there is the status quo position, which argues that Internet governance should remain as it is. ‘Do not fix it if it is not broken’. This view argues for maintaining the current multistakeholder approach, with the participation of governments, the business sector, and civil society, among others. It is usually associated with the model of the International Corporation on Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) as the main player. The strongest proponents of this view are the United States, the business sector, and the technical community. They use a mix of historical and functional arguments to support their position. Their strongest argument is the success of the US-based model of Internet governance. Over the last few decades, the US government has managed to be close enough to support the Internet financially, and far enough away to let innovation continue. They created a very loose regulatory framework with the Internet community in the leading position. According to their view, this system functions well, and there is no reason why anyone should change it.
On the other side other is the ‘change’ view, arguing that Internet governance should reflect current changes in the Internet ecosystem. The Internet is a global phenomenon with, for example, 34% of its users in China, and 20% of its users in the United States. From its beginning as an academic network, the Internet evolved into its current position as the critical infrastructure of modern society. The Internet is essential for economic growth for societies worldwide. The recent protests in Arab countries against the YouTube videos, shifted the spotlight to more difficult questions about the Internet and freedom of expression, cultural sensitivities, and the stability of society. While the protagonists of the ‘change’ view agree that tectonic changes are being triggered by the Internet, they differ widely in the way how these changes should affect the way the Internet is governed.
What is the view of ‘change camp’ and who supports this view?
This is a very diverse camp, including most developing and BRICs countries, with different motivations for seeking changes in Internet governance. Some countries would like to have more control over what their citizens write in blogs and tweets, for reasons of political control. Other, especially small and developing countries, are motivated by practical reasons of not being able to follow disperse Internet politics, conducted in more than 100 bodies and fora worldwide. They are looking for a “one-stop shop” on Internet governance, usually found in international organizations.
The common element in the change camp is the position that the management of the core Internet infrastructure needs to be internationalized. This camp proposes that the current arrangement with ICANN, a USA-based legal entity (legally incorporated in California) is no longer legitimate. The governance of the Internet should not be different from the governance of other global issues such as climate change, trade or food security. Consequently the global Internet would need an international treaty and a host organisation. The differences start here. Some, such as Russia, argue that the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) is the natural host to global Internet politics. Others, such as India, would like to see the Internet debate anchored to the UN General Assembly, with involvement of other stakeholders.
Is there any middle ground between these two camps?
Yes, a common ground is gradually being shaped by the European Union, Norway, Switzerland and a few G-20 countries. They agree with the USA that the uniqueness of the Internet requires a unique governance model with the participation of more actors than only governments. At the same time, they would like to have more mechanisms for the protection of the public interest on the Internet. This has particularly been the case after the start of the financial crisis, especially in the EU. Many in Brussels associate the outbreak of that crisis to the lack of any public oversight of the global financial markets. Generally speaking, the EU’s decision makers are skeptical about the self-governance argument and the power of a digital ‘invisible hand’. The EU wants to see more public oversight of Internet businesses, especially when it comes to the security of the critical infrastructure and the protection of data. In addition, France and Germany have been questioning the way the business models of Google and Facebook are applied in Europe.
Is the Internet economy influencing Internet politics?
With the financial crisis, governments worldwide are looking more than ever before to the Internet as a source of fiscal revenues. The Internet, like innovative technological devices in the past, has created a new set of winners and losers. The main winners are Internet companies such as Google and Facebook, whose business models are based on open and free access to the Internet. Among the main loosers there are telecommunication companies that experienced a decline in income. The European Telecommunication National Operators (ETNO) proposed a new regulatory model in which Facebook, Google and other Internet companies will pay telecommunication companies for traffic to their customers for the ITU Dubai meeting. The ETNO proposal has not gathered support at the Dubai conference, but the question of redistribution of income in global Internet business will be high on diplomatic agendas in the coming years.
The question of redistribution of digital wealth came in the focus after the latest report of the French government requesting digital tax for Google, Facebook and other Internet companies. The French study introduces one major conceptual shift by considering users’ data collected by Internet companies as row materials of digital economy. The study argues that Internet users of Google and Facebook are “workers”” contributing to the financial fortune of these companies. Thus, they should get some “share”. According to the French government study it should be done through the special digital taxes imposed on the Internet industry.
Can “Google” sustain its motto ‘Do not be evil’?
This is one of the core issues of the future of Internet politics. Google and other Internet companies have been great enablers by making easier and faster access to knowledge. All of us have benefited by Google. In the same time, Google is a business, and it has its own interests, which at some point may not coincide with the public interest. The complex relations between China and Google a few years ago, showed an interplay between values and business interests in Google’s work. All of us individually, and we as a society, ask this question: Should we simple trust that Google that won’t do any evil, or should we make sure that it won’t be possible, through tougher regulations, mainly in the field of data protection? It is a very delicate balancing act. If we over-regulate current and future “Googles” and “Facebooks”, we may lose benefits from their future innovation. If we under-regulate them, we make a considerable part of our digital existence dependent on the good faith of these companies.
Do you see many clouds in the future of Internet governance?
There will be a lot of tension among different political, economic and social interests. However I am an ‘optimistic realist’. In spite of all of their differences, most actors have an interest in reaching compromise, and maintaining the global Internet intact.
For the United States, every cyber-border reduces the global market for Google, Facebook and other Internet companies, as well as the outreach of the US culture, with its strong influence on Internet content.
For BRICs and other countries that would like to see more government control, the option of creating ‘national Internets’ is not viable. It would reduce economic dynamism and innovation, which come from access to the Global Internet. Any decision restricting access to the Internet , would also trigger protest from local Internet communities, as happened – for example – in Egypt during the Arab spring. Based on the real interests, we may expect more openness for a globally acceptable compromise in Internet governance.
Can a new Internet governance deal be achieved in 2013?
It is too early. In 2013, we can expect the appearance of the first building blocks for a new deal, which may be achieved at the earliest in 2015, on the occasion of the WSIS + 10. We will discuss some of these building blocks during the January IG webinar.